Painting sonnet 81: vacillation of “self (January 9-14, 2016)

Lena Levin. Sonnet 81. 20″×20″. 2016.

Or I shall live your epitaph to make,
Or you survive when I in earth am rotten,
From hence your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die:
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombed in men’s eyes shall lie.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read;
And tongues to be your being shall rehearse,
When all the breathers of this world are dead;
You still shall live, such virtue hath my pen,
Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.

The first glimpse of the eighty first sonnet painting appeared on January 9th, 2016. Not exactly “out of the blue” — I had been staying with this sonnet for quite some time, but unexpected  nonetheless. It might have been blocked by the crisis with the previous one, and just appeared when this block was finally removed.

2016-01-04 13.07.02-1Even through this crisis, I did contemplate the sonnet: it’s somewhat controversial meaning, it’s ambivalent relationship to truth, its ambiguous addressee; and I made a colour chart, in an attempt to access its colour harmony. But there was no structure, no imagery — nothing to start a painting with. The glimpse I saw on January 9th was of the painting’s basic geometry: the contrast between a large, Turner-like circle of light, and the rough, earthly, stony foreground; and the core colour effect: flickering oranges against shiny greys. I started the underpainting for this sonnet on January 11th.

This sonnet is one of the rare occasions when the modern reader is also its character: we are its eyes not yet created, we are its tongues to be. The sonnet’s promise of immortality is thus apparently upheld by the very act of reading it, but with one caveat: this is Shakespeare’s immortality, not anyone else’s. In particular, not his young friend (or lover, or patron) to whom the sonnet is traditionally supposed to be addressed.

It is not the first time in the sequence its speaker promises immortality-through-art to its addressee, but this is the first time (as far as I recall) that this promised immortality is so explicitly opposed — twice! — to the speaker’s own mundane mortality (the earth can yield me but a common grave). It is this opposition that makes the poem’s promise an apparent lie.

This contradiction puzzles the mind, and suggests — to me at least — that the traditional reading (a poet addressing a friend) misses something fairly important. There must be something else going on here: the conventional interpretation just doesn’t work, and there are two more aspects of the poem that make it fall apart. First, the opposition between the listener’s immortality and the speaker’s mortality is introduced by although and though — as if their mortality (or immortality) are expected to be intrinsically linked to one another. Well, they are, in a sense — insofar as a poem’s immortality and the poet’s immortality are essentially the same thing. But that’s exactly what this poem is denying. And secondly, it’s the name of the addressee that the sonnet is supposed to immortalise (your name from hence immortal life shall have). But the name of the young man is never ever mentioned in the sequence! Dante might have immortalised the name of his Beatrice, and Petrarch, the name of his Laure — but Shakespeare left the name unnamed!

That’s why I cannot believe this poem is (a part of) a conversation between the poet and his beloved. In some way, it must be a conversation between two different “selves” of the poet (and here, momentarily, the mind is tempted by all these theories of alternative authorship: one person’s verse is immortalising the name of another). “Two selves” might sound like introducing too much modernity into Renaissance poetry, and maybe it does. But, after all, isn’t that the point of artistic immortality — Shakespeare holds a mirror up to everyone, reaching far into the future, and I am no exception. But I don’t  really think so, because of the context of this poem in the sequence: the context of a relationship between a poet and his muse (and a muse is, arguably, a version of another self). This context gives a key to the puzzle of the sonnet.

2016-01-11 13.54.05At this stage, the painting was envisioned as a contrast between earth and air (picking up the sonnet’s theme of “breathing”, and the implied link between breathing and inspiration). It continues the strand of juxtaposing Turner with cubism; geometrically, it’s a juxtaposition of straight lines and a circle, harsh lines and subtle variations of colour.

  

The work on this painting continued on January 12, but the painting session was shorter than expected, because I didn’t quite know what to do next, and didn’t want to move forward without more clarity.

2016-01-12 13.32.59This painting session contained an “aha-moment”, an insight into the deeper meaning of the sonnet. Not “the” solution to its puzzle; this puzzle, like most of Shakespeare’s many puzzles is probably not there to be “solved”, but rather to puzzle the mind, to make it give up and let go. What Shakespearean puzzles remind me of is a Buddhist teaching practice, which amounts to offering the mind something so absurdly paradoxical and incomprehensible that it gives up, and “goes away” for a moment at least, opening the gap into a direct, “untranslated”, perception of reality.

So my “aha-moment” wasn’t the solution, not the answer to the question of who is the “you” who can be immortalised in Shakespeare’s poetry while its “I” remains completely, earthly mortal. Instead, I remembered that, in the act of creation, the usual sense of “I” is suspended. The “I” who is creating is definitely not the everyday “I” navigating in the world. In poetry especially, by all accounts, the ancient mechanism of suspending the “left-brain consciousness” to let another voice  speak audibly still works. That’s how great poetry emerges — by listening, not by “talking” or “arguing”. So this tension between two “I”s, two “selves” is inherent in the process of writing poetry.

But this tension is not just the relationship between a poet and his Muse. The “I” who is talking here is more complex, more ambiguous: on the one hand, it knows itself to be fully, completely, earthly, humanely mortal; on the other, it speaks of all breathers of this world with a mind-boggling detachment, as though it’s not one of them. There is a vacillation between mortality and immortality, between the speaker and the listener, between two “selves” — all throughout the poem, like the very rhythm of breathing in and out.

The painting was completed on January 14, or at least as “completed” it could be before all its “sister paintings” (other parts of the same sixteen-sonnets composition) are here. The final insight was that the painting shouldn’t try to be the solution to the puzzle of the sonnet; rather, it should be as puzzling to the mind as the sonnet. And this puzzle is not about mortality versus immortality (both of them, after all, are rather boring) — but rather about the vacillation between two “selves”: the experiencer and the witness, the story-telling I (the left-brain consciousness in Julian Jaynes’s sense), on the one hand, and something larger than that. With this insight, the painting changed. From the painting “about” earth and air, it turned into something about this trembling, fascinating vacillation between two “selves”, where you don’t quite now, at each particular moment, which one of them is “you”.

Lena Levin. Sonnet 81 (preliminary photo).
Lena Levin. Sonnet 81 (preliminary photo).

When I first envisioned this composition, I was confused about the location of the circle (or rather, the location of its centre): sometimes, it wanted to be right in the middle of the painting; other times, slightly off. In the current version, there are two circles with different centres, even though the eye of the beholder might be puzzled about it. And a similar re-affirmation of ambiguities, ambivalences between alternative “solutions”, happened to other aspects of the painting, too (greys versus blues, curves versus straight lines).

And the painting process was itself an instance of vacillation between the experiences of two selves. I berated myself for this for a time, because I believe that the authentic painting process ought to come from this larger, deeper version of “self”. But then again — if I am to paint this trembling, this vacillation, akin to the motion of breathing in and out, then I am bound, in a sense, to experience it in the process. This is the experience the painting comes from.

January 14, 2016: on two “selves” in sonnet 81

2016-01-15 10.47.08

It was a day of painting. Which is to say, the core, the heart, the focus of this day was painting — one probably wouldn’t say so just by the share of “objective time” it took.

This is a question I am living right now: what with my first online teaching program, and my attempts to be better at what I’ve come call (without due humility) the art of being, and at teaching, too — with more time, in short, dedicated to reflections, and meditations, and writing, and conversations, and just to walking, I spend less time in the studio than I used to, and than I would love to. Interestingly, I actually accomplish more in this shorter time — but, on the other hand, painting is not something I want to accomplish, not something I want to get done. It’s rather something I want to be doing. I have no idea how this dilemma, this particular tension will resolve itself — so, for now, I am just living through it, and wondering at it.

But back to this day: the eighty first sonnet painting is complete — or at least as complete as it can be before all its “sister paintings”, other components of the same sixteen-sonnets composition, are here. And since it’s only the fourth painting in this composition, it will take some time for all of them to materialise. For now, then, I am off to the next sonnet — and I also have one of the earlier sonnet compositions to rework. I don’t know yet which will come first.

So what are the thoughts and discoveries of this painting day, the thoughts and sensations that went into this painting (or should I rather say — “came out of it”)?

One realisation was that the painting shouldn’t try to be the solution to the puzzle of the sonnet. Rather, it should be as puzzling to the mind as the sonnet. And it’s not about mortality versus immortality (both of them, when all is said and done, are rather boring) — but rather about the vacillation between two “I”s; the experiencer and the witness, the “analog”, story-telling I — consciousness in Julian Jaynes’s sense, and something larger than that (in Jaynes’s framework, the other one would be “the whole animal”, functioning in the real world — but there is, of course, a variety of much grander and more esoteric interpretations in other frameworks and belief systems). The presence versus the absence of “ego”.

With this realisation, the painting changed. From the painting “about” earth and air, it turned into something about this trembling, fascinating vacillation between two “selves”, where you don’t quite now, at each particular moment, which one of them is “you”.

When I first envisioned this composition, I was confused about the location of the circle (or rather, the location of its centre): sometimes, it wanted to be right in the middle of the painting; other times, slightly off. Now there are really two circles with different centres, even though the eye of the beholder might be puzzled about it (justifiably). And a similar re-affirmation of ambiguities, ambivalences between alternative “solutions”, happened to other aspects of the painting, too: greys versus blues, curves versus straight lines.

Witnessing this process was itself an instance of vacillation between the experience of two selves. I berated myself for this for a time, assuming that the authentic painting process ought to come from this larger, deeper version of “self”. But then again — if I am to paint this trembling, this vacillation, akin to the motion of breathing in and out, then I am bound, in a sense, to experience it in the process. This is the experience the painting comes from.

January 12, 2016: The painting bringing a kind of clarity to the poem (Sonnet 81), if not to itself

2016-01-12 13.32.59

This day’s painting session was shorter than I had hoped and expected — just two hours. Not even two full hours — rather two academic hours, with an interval in between; that’s how I generally structure my work time.

And yet, in spite of this brevity, it has noticeably moved the painting into the “right” direction; it is not complete, but it made sense to stop. Just because it may be the case that there is very little to be done at this point, and I don’t want to move forward without more clarity.

But that’s not the only thing that’s happened in this session.  There was also an “aha-moment” of (what I hope is) a deeper understanding of the sonnet. Not “the” solution to the puzzle of this sonnet. I think this puzzle, like most of Shakespeare’s many puzzles is not there to be “solved”, but rather to puzzle the mind, to make it give up and let go. Just recently, discussing “Hamlet” with Eugene, I told him that all the puzzling contradictions are there intentionally — otherwise, there would be nothing to talk about and interpret, and the play wouldn’t have fascinated us for these four centuries. This (kind of) implied that this was Shakespeare’s way to gain popularity and even his path to immortality. But that’s not the case, I don’t really think so. What Shakespearean puzzles remind me of is this Buddhist “teaching” practice, which amounts to offering the mind something so absurdly paradoxical and incomprehensible that it gives up, and “goes away” for a moment at least, opening the gap into pure perception of reality.

So it’s not a “solution” — not even for myself, just a new way to think about the puzzle. The question that’s been bothering me all along is this: who is that “you” who can be immortalised in Shakespeare’s poetry while “I” remains completely, earthly mortal? So the “solution” would be the identity of “you” and “I”, which would fit the situation “perfectly”, which I might “argue for” in some sort of scholarly commentary.

I don’t have such a solution, but what I realised during the painting session (“remembered” would probably be a better word here) was that, in the act of creation, the usual sense of “I” is suspended. The “I” who is doing the creating is definitely not the everyday “I” navigating in the world. In poetry especially, by all accounts, the ancient mechanism of suspending the “left-brain consciousness” to let another voice speak audibly still works. That’s how great poetry is created — by listening to this inner voice, not by “talking” or “arguing”. So the tension between two “I”s, two “selves” is inherent in the process of writing poetry — and there is every reason to believe that that’s how Shakespeare composed his sonnets, too (at least, most of the time).

But it’s not as simple as just the relationship between a poet and his Muse. The “I” who is talking here is more complex, more ambiguous: on the one hand, it knows itself to be fully, completely, earthly, humanely mortal; on the other, it speaks of all breathers of this world with a mind-boggling detachment, as though it’s not one of them. There is a vacillation between mortality and immortality, between the speaker and the listener, between two “selves” — all throughout the poem, like the very rhythm of breathing in and out.

January 11, 2016: The puzzle of sonnet 81

Most of today’s working time was spent on writing for “The making of a great painting” (Module 2), but today is also the start of sonnet 81 painting; the “underpainting day”.

Or I shall live your epitaph to make,
Or you survive when I in earth am rotten,
From hence your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die:
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombed in men’s eyes shall lie.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read;
And tongues to be your being shall rehearse,
When all the breathers of this world are dead;
You still shall live, such virtue hath my pen,
Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.

A rare occasion when the modern reader is also a character of the poem: we are these eyes not yet created, we are these tongues to be. The promise of immortality — or at least of a life well beyond the usual human limitations — is thus apparently upheld by the very fact that this poem is still being read and rehearsed. With one caveat: this is Shakespeare’s immortality, not anyone else’s. Not his young friend (or lover, or patron) — the assumed addressee of the sonnet (unless, of course, we decide to count the centuries-long fascination with his true identity as a kind of immortality).   

It’s not the first time in the sequence its author promises immortality-through-art to its addressee, but this is the first time — as far as I recall — that this promised immortality is so explicitly opposed — twice! — to the author’s own mundane mortality (the earth can yield me but a common grave). It is this opposition that makes the poem’s promise an apparent lie.

This contradiction puzzles the mind, and suggests — to me at least — that the superficial reading (a poet addressing someone) is wrong. There must be something else going on here: the first, conventional interpretation just doesn’t work — and there are two more aspects of the poem that make it fall apart.

First, the opposition between the listener’s immortality and the speaker’s mortality is introduced by although and though — as is their mortalities (or immortalities) are expected to be intrinsically linked to one another. Well, they are, in a sense — insofar as a poem’s immortality and the poet’s immortality are essentially the same thing. But that’s what this poem is denying. And secondly — it’s the name of the listener that the sonnet is supposed to immortalise (your name from hence immortal life shall have). But the name of a young man is never even mentioned — not here, not elsewhere in the sequence! Dante might have immortalised the name of his Beatrice, and Petrarch, the name of his Laure — but Shakespeare left the name unnamed!

And that’s why I cannot believe this poem is (a part of) a conversation between the poet and his beloved. In some way, it must be a conversation between two different “selves” of the poet (momentarily, the mind is tempted by the idea of alternative authorship: one person’s verse is immortalising the name of another).

“Two selves” might sound like introducing too much modernity into Renaissance poetry, and this well may be so. But, after all, that’s the point of immortality — Shakespeare holds a mirror up to everyone, and I am no exception. But I don’t think so, not in this case, because of the context of this poem in the sequence: the context of a relationship between a poet and his muse. This context, I beleive, offers a key to this puzzle.

2016-01-11 13.54.05The painting — as I see it now, and as I started it today — will work on the opposition between earth and air (picking up the theme of “breathing”, and the implied link between breathing and inspiration). It continues to explore the painterly contrast between cubism and Turner, and, I hope, will strengthen it (compared to previous sonnet paintings). It’s the opposition between straight lines and a circle, between harsh edges and subtle variations of colour.

  

On pure being (January 9-10, 2016; sonnet 81)

I haven’t painted this weekend, but there was quite a lot of stuff worth noting in my newly envisioned Studio Journal.

These were two days of pure being. Meditations, and walks, and conversations, and watching Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet”, and even some kitchen-cleaning, and an extraordinary dream (more about it later), and — as a gift from the universe — a clear vision of the next sonnet painting.

I know it’s January, but it’s spring already here in Northern California. Probably happy with a few days of rains, the new grass is incredibly, shiningly green — almost painful to the eyes, if it wasn’t so obviously filled with delight. Torn between rain and sun, the sky is of the kind that cannot be painted, simply because nobody would believe me. People would think I am just trying to express something esoteric — with a grand diagonal across the sky, clear blue to the right, violet-grayish clouds to the left, with a pale-yellow sun barely visible through them. So I won’t even try to paint it — but just note that the color variations are exactly what I need for this next sonnet.

The kitchen-cleaning, though — what could it possibly have to do with Studio Journal? But it does — because it was one of the obviously successful manifestations of the new way of living I am trying out: a life without planning, but just riding the waves of intentions, desires, impulses, and inspirations. Not forcing myself to do anything by putting it on “to-do lists”, but not delaying things either: just do it when the impulse arises. If someone else promised me in advance this impulse to clean the kitchen, I probably wouldn’t believe them — but it came, and I actually cleaned it; pure action, without plans, without delays, without resistance, without procrastination, without spending any mental energy on the endless game between “will” and “resistance”. The kitchen example is admittedly ridiculous, I know, but I’ve decided to put it here nonetheless — just because the boundaries between different realms of life are, in a sense, even more ridiculous.

Paul Cezanne. Self-portrait. 1866.
Paul Cezanne. Self-portrait. 1866.

The dream — I haven’t experienced dreams so colourful before…  Put in plain terms, the dream was about a hike across America (from Los Angeles up north towards Canada) with a young Paul Cézanne (looking more or less like he does in this picture). It seems to me that I was much younger than I actually am in this dream, too. It was a painting trip, but also a quest — where we had to find different places, and there were pictures supposed to guides to the next place. I remember three things about this trip most clearly: a view, with stones and bushes on the top of a hill, which I suggested we should paint. His utter surprise that it can be colder in the south than in the north. And the fact that Highway 5 was a bright-yellow downward slope, which one could traverse with amazing speed sitting on one’s bottom — quite useful when one is hiking from Los Angeles to Canada, actually.   

 2016-01-04 13.07.02-1And lastly, the vision for the next sonnet painting, 81 — not completely “out of the blue” — I’ve been staying with this sonnet for quite some time already — but unexpected nonetheless. I believe it might have been blocked by the crisis with the previous one, even though I didn’t understand it. I did contemplate the sonnet — it’s somewhat controversial meaning, it’s ambiguous relationship to truth, the question of who talks to whom in this sonnet (I will write more about it later on). And I did a colour chart for its colour harmony. But there was still no structure, no imagery; I couldn’t really start the painting; it was all too fuzzy.

But now it’s here. Its basic geometry — the contrast between a large, Turner-like circle of light, and the rough, earthly, stony foreground. The flickering oranges against shiny greys. I now know exactly how the painting ought to look like. All that remains is to paint it!