Stepping back (June 18 — June 30, 2016)

Lena Levin. Trees on Alameda Creek. June 2016.
Lena Levin. Trees on Alameda Creek. June 2016.

The intention for the whole “Sonnets in Colour” series was to find the space of unity between language and colour, between poetry and painting. The space where this duality dissolves. I suspect I received exactly what I wished for, albeit not in the form I expected…

I sometimes catch myself measuring my life against a somewhat vague ideal of a “real grown-up” — who knows exactly who they are, and their rightful place in the world. In other words, someone who knows everything there is to know.

When I write it down like this, it seems utterly absurd: the ideal I compare myself with turns out to be a self-satisfied, decaying fool. Because who but a fool can “know all there is to know”, and what one can do but decay once this enviable state is achieved?

It is useful to step back occasionally to witness (with frustration and amusement) this kind of absurdity in one’s own thought processes (and one’s own life).

And this is a large part of what I was doing over these last two weeks — apart from doing my best to keep up with the established rhythms of activities: the bi-weekly rhythm of “Sonnets in colour” series (it’s been sonnet 87 these two weeks), and the weekly rhythm of writing for my “Art of Seeing” project — an attempt to share my way of interacting with painting: painting as seeing (and feeling), painting as being, painting as doing.

Oh, and I got myself outside once for this one plein air painting.

Looking back — and re-reading my notes from these days — this one plein air session feels like the most intensely and self-evidently meaningful event, a peak experience. But this is not quite true — there was another intensely meaningful moment, which felt very scary and, seemingly at least, in direct contradiction with this experience: the moment when I understood that painting isn’t enough, not for me — not for what I vaguely feel I have to do.

In a nutshell, this is the reason for this stepping back. My only “compass” for moment-to-moment choices in life is the inner sensation of meaningfulness; the intuitive distinction between meaningful and meaningless moments. At its core, this sensation doesn’t depend on any outer circumstances. It is in feeling and being, in letting oneself be open to as rich and full flow of sensory perceptions as possible. And, for me, this means painting.

And yet, at another level, I feel that that’s not enough; in the same sense that breathing in is not enough without breathing out. If I stay with this private, inner sensation of meaningfulness, I will have failed to live up to something. The inner need for expression which isn’t satisfied with painting alone, which calls for writing — almost drags me towards writing against my own will.

The intention for the whole “Sonnets in Colour” series was to find the space of unity between language and colour, between poetry and painting. The space where this duality dissolves. I suspect I received exactly what I wished for, albeit not in the form I expected (isn’t this always the case?). Now I have to acknowledge this, and to learn to deal with it. Which basically means, I have to learn how to write…         

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.

January 13, 2016: studio journaling and studying with Rembrandt

A small color sketch from Rembrandt
A small color sketch from Rembrandt

January 13th is the “old” New Year’s Eve in the Russian Orthodox calendar.

In my childhood and youth, the existence of this “Old New Year” (quite apart from the curiously oxymoronic way it sounded) offered a kind of (optional) delay to all the self-imposed deadlines associated with the turn of the year: if you haven’t managed to have something done till December 31st, it was as though you could allow yourself another fortnight (which momentarily seemed like an eternity). Ditto for any resolutions you didn’t quite manage to get going — you could always start on January 14th.

This year, though, was different. To begin with, we actually managed to “miss” the turn of the year, the midnight — for the first time in our life, it seemed remarkably unimportant. And anyway, when we finally get to the next year here in California, almost everybody else is already there… so what’s the point? And there were no self-imposed deadlines, and no resolutions — thus nothing to delay till January 13th. And so I have missed this one, too — and only remembered it today, when I started to edit this journal entry.

Interestingly, though, I did begin this year something I had been wanting to do (and procrastinating about) for a rather long time: these regular Studio Journal entries. These are intended both as an additional incentive to journal regularly in the evening, to look back at the day — and as a way to train myself to be more “raw”, more open, more direct and less refined in what I write in the public domain.

And so I somehow fell into this rhythm of writing: journaling for myself only every night, and then reading it, and editing, very informally, to post in this Studio Journal. And even if I did not feel like journaling by the end of this long and intensive workday, January 13th, I also felt already attached, almost addicted, to this new practice, this new routine. Pausing, and looking back at the day, and at my own self in the expanse of this day. The expanse of the day — this is the phrase that’s been playing on my mind all through the first half of the day.

That’s because the new approach to living I am trying to put into practice has brought me back to this childlike perception of time: it flies by imperceptibly, but its finite intervals  — the upcoming and past weeks, and months, and days — seem long, expansive, almost infinite. It now seems to me that the real New Year’s Eve was ages ago — so much has somehow eased itself into this fortnight… Over the last years, I had grown accustomed to the opposite perception of time — when it feels like it drags every day, but years, and months, and weeks rush by as though in a flash of moment; and some events of the (already) distant past seem like they happened yesterday. This change of perception feels right — as though a kind of homecoming. And I suspect this daily journaling routine has some part in this change.

But the point of this journal is to keep track of my life, and of my studio practice, and of the work on the “Sonnets in Colour” series. Nothing much happened to the sonnets series this day, because it just happened to be wholly dedicated to work on my “Learning to Learn from Masters” course, it second module. It took somewhat longer than I expected, but partly because it was not devoid of painting.

Some time ago, at the spur of a moment, I “joined” my own program with the idea of studying Rembrandt’s masterpiece, “The return of the prodigal son”. The idea stroke me as one of utter madness and absurdity even at the time — comparable in madness, perhaps, with the very idea of painting Shakespeare’s sonnets. But I followed it nonetheless. Partly because of this new way of living I am trying to adopt, a life without overthinking and over planning, just acting whenever I feel like the impulse to act comes from some sort of inner depth. But also because I am so desperately afraid of being a coward that if something seems scary, I jump to do it — just so as not to appear cowardly to my own self. And then, of course, I wanted to attempt the painting so challenging to myself that would match the challenges set for themselves by other participants of my program.

What this study has in common with the sonnet series is not just the utter madness of the idea, and not that they both fall under the category of “painting”, but also the need to reflect on the process, to witness it as though from the outside. For me, this an opportunity to undergo the process of “painting study” again, more mindfully, more consciously than ever before — noticing what I am doing, understanding it, putting it into (hopefully) comprehensible words, making the experience shareable.

The connection with Rembrandt I have experienced today was pure joy — as much of a joy as I have ever had in this mysterious process of communing with the masters of painting. Not that I don’t know that it tends to happen  — but somehow, it surprises me with this joy every single time. And this is only the beginning…

On Future as the source of energy for Present

If you have read my last letter, you already know about my plans for the “Sonnets in Colour” website in general, and this blog in particular. In short, I will be working more on the static (non-blog) component of the website, while the blog will transform into the studio journal it was always meant to become (rather than just a temporary container for essays intended for the static part of the site). So if you want to follow the evolution of this static part (which will be more like an evolving book than a blog), I’d love you to subscribe to the newsletter.

With this clarification, on to my studio journal.

Lena Levin. Le Petit Prince. 20"×16". 2012.
Lena Levin. Le Petit Prince. 20″×16″. 2012.

I’ve spent a lot of time this week thinking about future, much more than usual (it doesn’t mean I haven’t been painting — this process is essential for my well-being and overall sanity, whatever else I do). In recent years, I’ve grown increasingly addicted to living in the present, but there is no contradiction here — and that’s what this post is about.

In a sense, it’s a follow-up from my last week’s post about sonnets fifty and fifty one, where I arrived at the metaphor of future as nesting Matryoshka dolls, all contained in the present. This metaphor, and its (as it were) “practical” repercussions, have been incubating in my mind the whole week. I want to share the result with you, in case you might find it helpful in your own life. There is nothing new here, strictly speaking, but somehow I found the nesting dolls metaphor extremely useful for visualising these ideas.

So let’s imagine four nesting dolls (I’ve given them names, so that — if abbreviated to their initial letters — this whole little theory of mine would read “P-L-A-Y”).

The largest one, containing them all, is the present — your here and now. Let’s call this doll YOU.

The smallest one, hidden deep inside YOU, is a greatest, brightest dream you can imagine. Let’s call it PARADISE.  You can imagine this Paradise, even if imperfectly, but you have not the slightest idea how this future can come to pass; it is something barely possible, or might even seem downright impossible. The only important thing about it is that the very image, however imperfect and unrealistic, creates a kind of fire within, a wave of energy and joy, the sensation of being fully alive (just like it happens in the fifty first sonnet — in winged speed no motion shall I know).   

It’s not a “goal” (let alone “smart goal”), because you have no idea how to get there. And even though you can imagine this future, and yourself in it, it feels like daydreaming — and it’s quite likely that it will never happen exactly the way you imagine it. But it doesn’t matter. The purpose of this dreamy bright future is just to sit there deep within you, not as a goal, but as a source of energy (or motivation, in more practical terms).

Lena Levin. Sonnet 59: That I might see what the old world could say. 2014
Lena Levin. Sonnet 59: That I might see what the old world could say. 2014

I think we naturally have something like Paradise within in childhood, but many of us gradually lose this innermost “doll” as we grow up, and the future turns from the source of energy to the source of anxiety.

And, let’s face it, the imaginable future inevitably grows shorter as one grows older, and thus it might seem increasingly ridiculous to dream up something you don’t know how to achieve. And yet the whole point of the Paradise doll is its presence (within the present). It is something to reimagine from time to time, not something to attach any specific plans or timeframes to. Just reimagine and then let go.

So what about two intermediate dolls?

I’ll call one of them LEAD (not in the sense of “metal”, but “lead” as an initiative in action; to tell you the truth, I just haven’t found anything more appropriate which would start with “L”). It’s not unlike Paradise, but bigger and more easily “visible”, less deeply hidden. This future might feel more like a goal: something you know, or at least have some idea, how to achieve. You can imagine it in a more detailed and realistic way and it certainly feels possible. There can be, of course, many Lead-like dolls nested within one another (but not too many; otherwise, the whole metaphor deteriorates into obsessive planning).

And the other, still bigger one, I’ll call ARIEL. Ariel is almost as big as YOU — its the future of the next moment, the one that is becoming the present right now: for me as I am writing this and getting to the next sentence, and for you as you are reading it and your eyes glide to the next line. In short, it’s the future that flows directly and immediately out of the present, the one which is (almost) fully within your conscious control.

The key aspect of my Matryoshka doll metaphor is, of course, nesting: my dolls contain one another. In other words, they are all aligned. It is only if they are aligned that the innermost one, the image of Paradise, really works as the source of energy for the present. In this present, in the hear and now, Ariel can either be aligned with Paradise or not, and it fully depends on YOU.

Lena Levin. Magdalene (after Boris Pasternak and Marc Chagall). 2014
Lena Levin. Magdalene (after Boris Pasternak and Marc Chagall). 2014

The thing is, even if I don’t know the roadmap to Paradise, even if I can barely see it, it is still very easy to feel whether Ariel is aligned with it or not.

In this particular here and now, I know with certainty that if Ariel is still writing this post, it is aligned with my personal Paradise — but if I succumb to the occasional temptation to browse Internet, then it isn’t. See, it’s only if my Ariel still contains my Paradise that Paradise is right here within my present. Paradise not really a future, its the innermost part of the present. If I stray away, it dissolves into thin air, it simply doesn’t exist anymore.

As for you, if you are reading this (still reading!) just because you have succumbed to a similar temptation, then maybe your Ariel is calling you back to what you were doing before that? Here, I’ve done it: have you ever read a blog post which would in effect advise you to stop reading itself?

But if — just if — this reading feels like it may help you align YOU, your Ariel, your Lead(s) and your own Paradise, then this post has fulfilled its purpose.

By the way, it might seem that I am advocating the “delayed gratification” idea here, but nothing could be further from the truth. It would be, if my Paradise involved mindless Internet browsing, but it doesn’t. If anything, it contains a complete freedom from this particular temptation. Thus, in choosing to stay focused on writing, I bring this aspect of Paradise, this particular “gratification” right here to the present. If, on the contrary, I had chosen to go look what’s happening on Google+, I would have delayed it indefinitely.

  

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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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Rhythms of time

Lena Levin. Timber Cave: Rhythms of Time. 2014.
Lena Levin. Timber Cave: Rhythms of Time. 2014. 16″x20″. Oil on linen panel. Click the image for more

Ocean waves glide towards the shore in a slow rhythm, one after another, measuring the time like an ancient, gently murmuring clock. But there is a grander, slower rhythm, which looks like a frozen present to the human eye. Here and now, it seems that the shore is shaping the waves, constraining and breaking them, yet in the grand scheme of things, it’s the other way round: the curves of the high shore have been molded by the tides over the centuries and centuries of steady beat.

The most momentary of all — and most fleetingly picturesque — is the sea foam, its glistering fireworks erupting at the meeting point of water and earth, and disappearing in a matter of seconds. If the foam could think, it would probably imagine itself to be the main actor on this grand stage, the hero of the story being told — full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

 

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On Time and Space in Paul Cézanne’s alleys, and Cézanne’s limitless objectivity of vision

Paul Cezanne. Lane of Chestnut trees at the Jas de Bouffan. 1871
Paul Cezanne. Lane of Chestnut trees at the Jas de Bouffan. 1871

What is the secret of Cézanne’s Time: its breathtaking stillness, as though eternity was sitting silently right there in the painting? The answer must lie in the way he organises space, because our experience of space is the source for our understanding of time.

There is this immanent tension in painting between two-dimensional picture plane and three-dimensional space. An easy way to describe it would be to say that a painter projects a three-dimensional region of space onto a two-dimensional surface, and faces two opposite challenges: one, more obvious, is to create the illusion of depth and volume, the other is not to “break” the picture plane in the process. Both aren’t really universal — depending on the age and the context, a painter can abandon the illusion of three-dimensionality altogether, or push it to extremes — but Cézanne is a paragon of keeping this tension alive, creating volume and maintaining picture plane at the same time.

This quality of Cézanne’s composition is at the core of Erle Loran’s classic book on the subject. Here is how he illustrates the challenge:

2015-04-01 12.50.10-1“Diagram V is a configuration of overlapping planes that recede toward a vanishing point at the horizon. The exaggerated effect of deep space is the result of an uncompensated perspectival convergence and diminishing of sizes. The diagram illustrates what is meant by a funnel effect and a hole in the picture.

The illusion of space cutting into the picture plane results when no provision for a return out of depth is made. Cézanne never created this kind of effect, and it is intended here as an illustration of a very disturbing and tasteless kind of three-dimensional arrangement” (p. 20).

This illusion of “hole” is so easy to create because we are accustomed to “seeing” space extending away from us to (what amounts to) invisible infinity: we know that if things seem smaller and smaller, it means they are more and more distant, and we know that if at some point they become too distant to discern, it doesn’t mean the space ends there; and the brain uses this knowledge to compute the coherent picture it presents to the consciousness. As Loran mentions, Cézanne never lets the beholder fall into this illusion — there are no holes in his picture planes. This post is illustrated by his paintings of alleyways, where the view itself presents the quintessence of the “funnel” challenge, and you can see that, in one or another way, they all do indeed stop this mental motion towards infinite space and return the beholder out of depth.    

Paul Cezanne. The Alley at Chantilly. 1888,
Paul Cezanne. The Alley at Chantilly. 1888,

Erle Loran traveled Cézanne’s country and took photos of the same views — as close to Cézanne’s motifs as he could. One of his goals was to study how Cézanne modified nature to prevent the illusion of the space’s infinite expanse and preserve the essential two-dimensionality of the picture plane. He notices how Cézanne disregards perspective, raises the earth plane to make it “closer” to the picture plane (diagonal rather than horizontal), makes distant objects larger to bring them forward, “turns” the walls of houses and other structural planes (as though different parts of the view are seen from different vantage points).

At first, these observations seemed to me like the answer to my question: that’s how Cézanne changes the space in front of him to create this special sensation of time. Indeed, if the whole infinite expanse of space is brought within the flatter “picture box” and placed between its foreground and background planes, the corresponding sensation of time would bring all eternity within the single moment of now.

Paul Cezanne. The alley at Chantilly. 1988.
Paul Cezanne. The alley at Chantilly. 1988.

But there is something wrong here.

Cézanne’s paintings give an impression of ultimate objectivityin Rilke’s words, “limitless objectivity, refusing any kind of meddling in an alien unity (October 18, 1907). In an earlier letter (October 12), Rilke describes his conversation with Mathilde Vollmoeller in front of Cézanne’s paintings; she says: “He sat there in front of it like a dog, just looking, without any nervousness, without any ulterior motive.” As an example of a quite different beholder, about half a century later, here is how Colin Wilson, in “The Outsider”, compares Van Gogh and Cézanne:

“…the difference is more than a difference of technique; it is a completely different way of seeing. Cézanne rendered painstakingly, as Henry James rendered his pictures of European society, with innumerable small brush strokes. The final result has an orderliness that springs out of discipline. From Cézanne’s painting, we learn a great deal about the surface of the object painted and its distance from the eye, and a great deal about the will of the man who was determined to render it fully. We learn nothing of Cézanne’s emotion.”

Again, the distinct impression that we see the objective reality, including the objects’ “distance from the eye” — in an apparent contradiction to Loran’s objective observations. So, is the impression of Cézanne’s limitless objectivity false? Is it just an illusion created by a master painter with clever manipulation of structural planes?

I don’t think so. Rilke and Loran obviously look at Cézanne from very different perspectives — Rilke is a poet, Loran a painter — and Rilke would have probably been the first to defer to a painter’s superior knowledge. But there is one point on which they agree, and it is that Cézanne didn’t have a good conscious access to his insights as a painter (although Rilke talks about it with admiration, and Loran, with a certain degree of frustration), and this means he didn’t manipulate his structural planes with a conscious pictorial intention in mind. Although the desire to learn from Cézanne might seem more obvious in Loran, but it is also present in Rilke — and while Loran was learning to paint, Rilke focused on learning to see. He felt he had a special “private access” to Cézanne’s paintings, because their work intersected at some place where the difference between poetry and painting ceases to matter. He writes:

“It is the turning point in these paintings which I recognised, because I had just reached it in my own work or had at least come close to it somehow, probably after having long been ready for this one thing which so much depends on.”

And it is in this context, in the letter of October 18, 1907, that he mentions Cézanne’s limitless objectivity, refusing any kind of meddling.

What does he mean? The thing is, it’s not quite the case that a painter creates two-dimensional projections of a real three-dimensional space, simply because the images our eyes receive and transmit to the brain for further computing are two-dimensional projections to begin with (in case of landscapes, it’s essentially the same image in both eyes). Just like everyone else, what the painter’s eyes register is a temporal sequence of two-dimensional signals. The difference lies in what happens next.

Paul Cezanne. Bend in forest road. 1906
Paul Cezanne. Bend in forest road. 1906.

I touched upon this difference in my post on Claude Monet’s vision: the “normal” process of computing a coherent three-dimensional model of what we see involves a lot of what Eric Kandel, in “The age of insight”, calls “brain’s creativity”. He writes

“A digital camera will capture an image, be it a landscape or a face, pixel by pixel, as it appears before us. The eye cannot do that. Rather, as the cognitive psychologist Chris Frith writes: “What I perceive are not the crude and ambiguous cues that impinge from the outside world onto my eyes and my ears and my fingers. I perceive something much richer— a picture that combines all these crude signals with a wealth of past experience.… Our perception of the world is a fantasy that coincides with reality.”” 

The assumption that this fantasy coincides with reality sounds somewhat too far-fetched to me, but that’s obviously the same assumption Loran made in his book: he compared Cézanne’s paintings with photos, and with a three-dimensional fantasy created by his own brain (and based on his own past experience), and found that Cézanne modified reality.

But what Cézanne did, I believe, is the opposite: as Rilke intuited, he didn’t let his brain meddle with what he saw in the way people normally do, didn’t let his past everyday experiences interfere between the present visual reality and its painting. Or to put it another way, the decades of painting experiences retrained his brain to see more directly, without reconstructing what the eyes cannot see on the basis of prior “common sense” knowledge or any intellectual conceptions. I believe it is this non-meddling that creates the effects observed by Loran; Cézanne’s painting don’t extend into infinite space behind the background simply because the eyes don’t see that space — it is a fantasy of the brain.

In my experience, the idea of objectivity is often confused in everyday language with what would more accurately be called “common sense”, that is, some sort of coordination between people’s world views: something is objective if everyone can agree on it; if only one person sees things in a certain way, then it surely must be “subjective”. But what if this one person has spent more time and effort cleansing and refining his sense of vision, awakening himself to the visual reality, than anybody else? Wouldn’t it make sense to assume that he sees more clearly and objectively than the rest of us? Obviously, Rilke thought so, and he spared no effort in learning to see from Cézanne:

“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 …” [October 10, 1907]

And when one does, one begins to perceive Cézanne’s space in nature, undistorted by any “common sense” human knowledge:

“A large fan-shaped poplar was leafing playfully in front of this completely supportless blue, in front of the unfinished, exaggerated designs of a vastness which the good Lord holds out before him without any knowledge of perspective.” [October 11, 1907]

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On Time in painting

Lena Levin. Formula of Time (after Cezanne's "Pont de Maincy"). 2014. 30"x24". Oil on canvas.
Lena Levin. Formula of Time (after Cezanne’s “Pont de Maincy”). 2014. 30″x24″. Oil on canvas. Click the image for more…

Even when I first started thinking about painting Shakespeare’s sonnets, I knew that Time would be the crux of this project. Not just because it’s one of Shakespeare’s central themes, and not even just because the sensation of Time is such an essential aspect of human experience. I was fascinated and overwhelmed by the radical differences in how poems and paintings can represent Time, express Time, and even situate themselves in Time.

A poet has all the means for expressing Time accumulated by their language — words, metaphors, tenses. Add to this rhythms and meters, which enact and measure Time within the space of the poem. A poem can jump from the present to the future to the past easily and naturally, like thought, and imposes its own time flow on the listener (or reader), its own stresses and pauses, word after word, line after line.

A painting is always in the present, within a single on-going moment in time. One could even say, it is time-less. A modern viewer expects a painting to represent one moment, and the painting opens itself to the beholder as a whole, all at once. The unfolding of this experience in time is entirely up to the beholder (if, indeed, they even care to spare more than a glance for it before passing to the next one).

So, is there Time in painting?

In the golden time of man’s innocence, a painter could rely on allegories, or represent sequences of events within the scope of the same painting: these are essentially literary, story-telling devices of representing Time, beyond the realm of painting per se. Resorting to such devices might have resulted in a successful illustration, but my quest is for translation of sonnets into the language of painting.

Paul Cezanne. The bridge at Maincy. 1879.
Paul Cezanne. The bridge at Maincy. 1879.

I knew that some paintings can change the beholder’s sensation of Time, at least temporarily — just like the subjective sensation of Time often changes “in real life”.  Just compare Claude Monet to Paul Cézanne: Monet’s time is as fleeting as it gets (and he fully enjoys the flow), Cézanne’s stands still, like eternity manifested in every single moment. It sometimes seems to me that I wouldn’t even be able to wrap my head around the idea of eternity within now if I hadn’t spent so much time with Cézanne’s paintings.

How does the sensation of Time in painting arise? How is it created? I believe it must be more primal than any concept of Time mediated by language, simply because the way our languages — and our verbal thinking — treat time is based almost entirely on spatial metaphors (Shakespeare, of course, uses a variety of other metaphors for Time, but the spatial ones are unavoidable). When we think about time, we use the way we perceive space and its internal organisation as an explanatory source, as the basis for understanding (or an illusion of it). But the organisation of space is the realm of painting, and no one was better at it than Paul Cézanne.

My pathway to Time in painting had to lie through a study of Cézanne’s space and time, and the first steps on this path are this month’s theme on this blog. If you are interested in this topic, I’d love you to subscribe.

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On holding Time: the painting of sixty fifth sonnet

Lena Levin. Sonnet 65: Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back? 20"x20". Oil on canvas. 2014
Lena Levin. Sonnet 65: Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back? 20″x20″. Oil on canvas. 2014

[accordion_item title=”Read the sixty fifth sonnet again…“]

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o’er-sways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?

O, how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wrackful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays?

O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil o’er beauty can forbid?

O, none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

[/accordion_item]

[pullquote type=”right”] Wouldn’t holding the flow of time amount to dispelling an illusion, the illusion that there is anything to hold to begin with? [/pullquote]

The first, blurry, visualisation of this sonnet came easily: it’s all about holding something, or failing to hold (the verb hold is repeated thrice in different contexts, in every quatrain). And then there is this beautifully mixed metaphor of strong hand holding Time’s swift foot back in the eleventh line — so hands appeared in the very first sketch for this painting.

The hand imagery also offered a straightforward “translation” of the miracle of the sonnet: poetry transformed into painting. One hand will be holding a brush and actually painting the painting; just like this in this miracle self-references the sonnet, the painting will reference itself (I was indeed painting this hand from life, while working on this very painting).

[feature_headline type=”left” level=”h3″ looks_like=”h6″ icon=””]But what is it that these hands are trying to hold?[/feature_headline]

The question kept teasing me: I was convinced my vision of the future painting was so blurry because I didn’t have the answer, yet I decided to start, in the hope that the answer will come in the process. That’s, after all, what I probably love most about the process of painting: painting as a peculiar way of thinking, a word-less dialogue between the vision and the material. “Wordless” sounds like an oxymoron for a sonnet painting; but it’s only the words of the sonnet that are present: no inner discussions of its meaning or interpretation.      

Has the question resolved itself in this painting? The answer is both yes and no. The “yes” of it is this: the hands are trying to grasp the meaning of life. I spent some time looking for a historical grounding for this reading, but it emerged in my mind all by itself in the process of painting, an offspring of this strange interaction between poetry and colour.

It’s there in the painting: this is why there is, in a sense, nothing they hold, except for the chaotic movements of colour and the brush: the meaning of life is as impossible to grasp and hold as summer’s honey breath.

And this is the “no” of it: I don’t know what the meaning of life is, so all I could do was paint the question. Or put it this way: I know the meaning of life as it happens, but one cannot grasp it and cage it — neither in words, nor in concrete images. The blurriness of my initial image, it has turned out, was not an imperfect visualisation; it was its essence.

[feature_headline type=”left” level=”h3″ looks_like=”h6″ icon=””]But Shakespeare doesn’t say a word about the meaning of life, does he?[/feature_headline]

The sonnet is all about the non-existence of immortality, the impossibility of holding Time. Am I not, then, adding something alien to the sonnet, something that was never there at all? Maybe I am — it might even be inevitable (openness to such bizarre interactions with future minds is, arguably, what makes a poem immortal). Still, I believe this reading, the seed of it at least, is right there in the sonnet: immortality is relevant to the life of mortals only insofar as it is conceived of as the locus of meanings, the larger-than-life context of mortal life.

After all, it might have been natural to understand the meaning of life in terms of immortality when the world around humans was immortal. That’s how they looked at it in antiquity:

”Praise, from which came glory and eventually everlasting fame, could be bestowed only upon things already “great,” that is, things that possessed an emerging, shining quality which distinguished them from all others and made glory possible. The great was that which deserved immortality, that which should be admitted to the company of things that lasted forever, surrounding the futility of mortals with their unsurpassable majesty” (Arendt “Between Past and Future”, 1961: 47).

But if the world is mortal, as it is now (and as it evidently was for Shakespeare), then there is no obvious reason why something should be immortal to be meaningful: if something is fleeting, it is not necessarily futile; its fleetingness makes it all the more glorious. And yet, when we see and recognise this emerging, shining quality, the inherited conceptual link in the time-worn semantic network of our intellectual tradition still points to immortality, calls out for it, but there is only a great void where immortality used to be.

[feature_headline type=”left” level=”h3″ looks_like=”h6″ icon=””]Shakespeare sees this shining quality in fleeting beauty, faces the great void, and hopes to fill it with poetry. How? [/feature_headline]

Can art hold the flow of time: hold Time’s swift foot back, hold out against its wrackful siege, hold a plea with its rage? Can it capture the fleeting, shining moment of transient beauty? This, I feel, is just another version of the question I’ve been painting; another way to put its elusive answer in words: what these hands are trying to hold is Time. It’s not easy, but it doesn’t seem as inherently, despairingly impossible as to hold meaning.

Holding a moment, making it “sit still” for a while, even if only within the pictorial space, is the very essence of painting. It’s harder to depict, in a painting, the flow of time, its swift movement. This painting tries to achieve this with two explicit pictorial contrasts: one between movement and stillness, and the other, between (the illusion of) three-dimensionality and two-dimensional flatness.

Lena Levin. Sonnet 65 (Detail).
Lena Levin. Sonnet 65 (Detail).

This latter strategy exploits the way we (or rather: our languages) spatialise Time, that is, the way we think and talk of Time as the fourth spatial dimension, in which we can travel in one direction only, and with the pre-ordained velocity (unless, of course, we are time-travelling in our imagination). As holding the flow of time would reduce this four-dimensional time-space to a three-dimensional single moment, so the painting relinquishes its illusion of three-dimensionality in the bright warm area in the top right corner, above the brush. This area, the “painting within painting”, is both still and flat, overtly two-dimensional: the painting hand holds the flow of time and so protects the shining brightness of summer’s honey breath against the chaotic movement of cold colours.

This gives rise to the final paradox: after all, this painting, as any painting, is still and two-dimensional, whatever its contents and technique; movement and depth are but illusions created in interaction between a painting and its viewer’s sense of vision. The painting hand “collapses” the third dimension and “stops” the movement that were never really there in the first place. It has always been an illusion, a trick of senses, perhaps as illusionary as the fourth spatial dimension, in which our future pretends to exist “before us” and the past, “behind”. Wouldn’t holding the flow of time amount to dispelling an illusion, the illusion that there is anything to hold to begin with — no swift foot, no wrackful siege? Wouldn’t the world then be just like a painting that is still and flat, with neither depth nor movement? Wouldn’t it be boring and utterly devoid of meaning?

I don’t have answers, and these may well be the wrong questions — but these are the questions painting this sonnet leaves me to live with…

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On sonnet 65: art and immortality

[feature_headline type=”left, center, right” level=”h2″ looks_like=”h5″ icon=””] ... is it immortality that humans long for, or rather its perceived ability to give meaning to life? And isn’t this, then, the role in which arts can replace immortality of nature? [/feature_headline]

J.M.W.Turner. Ulysses deriding Polyphemus. 1829. Oil on canvas. 132 x 203 cm.
J.M.W.Turner. Ulysses deriding Polyphemus. 1829. Oil on canvas. 132 x 203 cm.

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o’er-sways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?

O, how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wrackful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays?

O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil o’er beauty can forbid?

O, none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 65

There is one inevitable stage in the process of painting a sonnet: getting thoroughly puzzled with something about it. For this sonnet, the puzzle was this:

The couplet seems to give a tentative promise to preserve for eternity the young man’s beauty, but then why does the sad mortality of long-lasting things play such a huge role, taking over the whole body of the sonnet?

Does one really need this grandiose background to appreciate the fleeting transience of human beauty? We know much more about the mortality of nature than Shakespeare and his contemporaries possibly could, accustomed as we are even to the perishability of stars and the universe itself, but I could neither feel nor see the connection: What does the death of the sun in the distant future have to do with the imminent ageing of one’s lover? How might it possibly help if the sun was, indeed, immortal?

Here is the answer I’ve found…

The seductive idea of immortalising something (or someone) in poetry originated in the Greek antiquity, and outlived its cornerstone: the ancient belief in the absolute immortality of nature. For the ancients, all things in nature were immortal, either ever-present (in inorganic nature) or constantly renewing themselves (in organic nature). They simply didn’t know that neither brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea but sad mortality over-sways their power, and so they lived in a now barely imaginable world where everything was eternal except humans. This is how Hannah Arendt describes this worldview in her 1961 essay “The concept of history”:

“<…> embedded in a cosmos in which everything was immortal, it was mortality which became the hallmark of human existence. <…> The mortality of man lies in the fact that individual life with a recognisable life-story from birth to death, rises out of biological life. […] This is mortality: to move along a rectilinear line in a universe where everything, if it moves at all, moves in a cyclical order.(Arendt 1961: 42)

Hence the fundamental tragic paradox of Greek culture:   

“<…> on the one hand, everything was seen and measured against the background of the things that are forever, while, on the other, true human greatness was understood, at least by the pre-Platonic Greeks, to reside in deeds and words […] This paradox, that greatness was understood in terms of permanence while human greatness was seen in precisely the most futile and least lasting activities of men, has haunted Greek poetry and historiography as it has perturbed the quiet of the philosophers.” (Arendt 1961: 45-46)

Poetry’s role was to resolve this paradox by praising great deeds and words and thus immortalising them in the everlasting memory of humankind (that’s why Mnemosyne is the mother of all muses)— as an animal species, the humankind shared in the immortality of organic nature, so one could rely on the immortality of its memory.  

Claude Monet. Camille Monet on her deathbed. 1879. Oil on canvas. 90 x 68 cm.
Claude Monet. Camille Monet on her deathbed. 1879. Oil on canvas. 90 x 68 cm.

Shakespeare is separated from the antiquity by a whole epoch defined by Christianity and its radical reversal of the ancient worldview (now nature was perishable, and individual humans were immortal). But in the sixteenth century, things were a-changing; as the Roman Church was losing its central political role, intellectual and public life was gradually being secularized; in the words of Hannah Arendt, “men once more had become mortals”. When the Renaissance humanists went back to the source of their intellectual tradition, “the ancient opposition of a mortal life to a more or less immortal world failed them. Now both life and world had become perishable, mortal, and futile” (Arendt 1961: 74).

This, then, is the historical context of this sonnet. Its lament over sad mortality of everything actually subverts the immortalising power of art, traditionally grounded in absolute immortality of nature. Paradoxically, though, the couplet reasserts the power of art: what the sonnet seems to be saying is that this miracle of poetry may still “work”; art might be able to replace immortality of nature, instead of relying on it. But how? If earth and boundless sea are perishable, then so is, evidently, black ink

And yet, that’s the world we live in now, don’t we? We don’t exactly know how and why, but art is still here. And even if its original promise of absolute immortality is gone and forgotten, the conceptual link between art and immortality persists. In the following quote, for instance, Aaron Copland invokes this conceptual link as the raison d’être for arts:

“The arts in general, I think, help to give significance to life. That’s one of their very basic and important functions. The arts soften man’s mortality and make more acceptable the whole life experience. It isn’t that you think your music will last forever, because nobody knows what’s going to last forever. But, you do know, in the history of the arts, that there have been certain works which have symbolized whole periods and the deepest feelings of mankind, and it’s that aspect of artistic creation which draws one on always, and makes it seem so very significant.” (quoted from Brainpickings.org)

Great works of art are actually our only direct experience of immortality, almost the only context which keeps this very word alive in the world: we wouldn’t call earth or sea immortal, but we do still use this word for poems and paintings. But the key word here, I believe, is significance — the meaning of life.

Rembrandt van Rijn. Danaë. 1636-1643. Oil on canvas. 185 x 202.5 cm.
Rembrandt van Rijn. Danaë. 1636-1643. Oil on canvas. 185 x 202.5 cm.

Shakespeare belongs to the age when the sad mortality of nature first threatened the meaningfulness of life. The modern age has grown habituated to the idea that not only earth, but the sun, the stars, the universe itself — everything is mortal, nothing is forever; so habituated to it, indeed, that, for most of us, this knowledge has lost its personal urgency, the immediacy of its connection to our own lives: that painful urgency that can still be heard in Shakespeare’s voice. As Arendt writes, “Today we find it difficult to grasp that this situation of absolute mortality could be unbearable to men” (1961: 74).

This may be true (it is certainly true for me, personally), but this personal longing for immortality in nature has not disappeared from our world completely; Alan Lightman, in a very recent book, writes of it as of an intrinsic paradox of human condition:

To my mind, it is one of the profound contradictions of human existence that we long for immortality, indeed fervently believe that something must be unchanging and permanent, when all of the evidence in nature argues against us. I certainly have such a longing. Either I am delusional, or nature is incomplete. […] Despite all the richness of the physical world — the majestic architecture of atoms, the rhythm of the tides, the luminescence of the galaxies—nature is missing something even more exquisite and grand: some immortal substance, which lies hidden from view. ” (Lightman 2014). 

Perhaps that’s why we can still hear Shakespeare’s pain in his verse, even though the longing has been gradually dulled by resignation and acceptance. But this longing for absolute immortality in a perishable world may not be an eternal universal of human condition, as Lightman suggests, but rather an unhappy part of our intellectual inheritance from the Greek antiquity. It left us with the concept of immortality and its implicit connection to meaningfulness, handed down through generations neatly “packed” in our various languages for easy, unconscious acquisition, even though immortality itself disappeared from the world.

But is it immortality per se that humans long for, or rather its perceived ability to give meaning to life, its seductive promise of significance? And isn’t this, then, the role in which arts can replace the antiquated immortality of nature? Isn’t this what Shakespeare’s tentative hope in this miracle is about?    

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