In the intense instance of imagination, when the mind, Shelley says, is a fading coal that which I was is that which I am and that in possibility I may come to be. -
Stephen Daedelus in James Joyce’s Ulysses, 187.
I begin with a story, for narratives seem to be the originary point for an aesthetics of change. Not long ago, during the winter months in the Hill Country of Texas, the days suddenly thawed and we found ourselves on a Sunday with 75 degrees and sunny afternoon. My younger son and I leaped on the chance, quite spontaneously, for a motorcycle ride through the ranch roads from New Braunfels to Blanco, Texas. The roads overflowed with other motorcycles, all waving to one another as we passed by. The weather was glorious and we all knew the sensations felt by each as the sun warmed us and welcomed us into the outdoors.
For reasons I will not share with you here, I had been haunted by negative, and at times even violent fantasies; their source I suspected but that knowledge did not encourage them to leave. Even with such a beautiful day with my son, including a stop for lunch and then an easy ride home that, round trip, covered just over one hundred miles, I realized that a cold funk was still riding in the passenger seat of the Harley-Davidson. I waved goodbye to son Steve as he turned right on Farm road 3009 and headed for his own home; I continued to our place and drove into the garage. My wife had a fine fire glowing in the chimenea on our front deck. We live on 5.5 acres in a rural area of Texas, about 40 miles south of Austin and north of San Antonio. Now it is around 5 pm on a late February afternoon. The sun was low in the sky now, shining more with a dim glow through the live oaks and mountain laurels that populate our property. Its light breaks up on the front lawn, soaking down to the road some 40 yards from where we now sit. Little to no traffic passes by our house, and when cars cruise by, everyone waves according to Hill Country etiquette.
After a few minutes’ visit, we sit in silence. I rise to put more branches into the hungry mouth of the chimenea; we sip our drinks and settle into the placid, still air that surrounds us, now that it has settled after my movements. Overhead, two turkey vultures coast on the updraft rising from the Guadalupe river below us—a 15 minute walk down a serpentine road that leads to its banks. The fire, now newly-replenished, spits and cracks and flames up, then slowly settles to a clam but fierce burn that warms our legs. The wood turns a grayish white and enlivens when a whip of air is sucked into its glowing maw.
I look up and around; the trees are beginning to darken, preparing themselves, I think, for their night’s slumber. The air is soft and light on my wife Sandy’s face. I feel the welcome glow of warmth from the belly of the clay vessel before us. But mostly it is the light, in broken clots and streams slicing through and settling on and between the darkening forest of trees, that turns me. I say it out loud: “How beautiful this is.” And, almost in the same instant, I recollect a scene from Herman Melville’s epic whale tale relayed by Ishmael, the narrator. As he sits with his primal brother, Queequeg, son of an island chief from the island of Kokovoko, together they turn the pages of a book by the fire of Peter Coffin’s inn, as the winter wind howls outside and ice continues to thicken on the window, with “phantoms gathering round the casements, and peering in upon us silent, solitary twain; the storm booming without in solemn swells; I began to be sensible of strange feelings.” And then Ishmael’s epiphany settles over him:
I felt a melting in me. No more my splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world. This soothing savage had redeemed it. There he sat, his very indifference speaking a nature in which there lurked no civilized hypocrisies and bland deceits. - “A Bosom Friend”, 56
I felt the power of the lines evoked by a similar feeling: a melting in me: the air, the light, the fire, my wife of 42 years sitting close by, in this scene is suddenly made present a transformation of attitude; the feeling of woundedness shifts subtly and with great dispatch. James Joyce, in another context, referred to such an instant as witness to a moment aesthetic arrest where for a moment life is held in suspension in the presence of beauty, of a power of energy that makes something present in perceptual and affective splendor. I wonder, at this instant: Will it last? Is it permanent? Is it already fading into the quotidian swamp of the normal? But these questions too dissolve in the filament of fire and in the audacious simplicity of nature’s grand healing impulse, there for anyone to bathe themselves in the moist air of sunlight now moving gracefully in repose towards dusk, towards the death of a day now only to be remembered.
Herein is present the aesthetics of transformation writ large yet often largely ignored, missed, deflected, stepped over because of its ordinary, its seemingly ineffectual presence to minds lost within too much interiority or too extroverted activity to notice, heed or be heralded and healed by.
To be open and porous to it, however, one may be transformed by this wonder of slow time and soothing yet silent serenade aimed directly at a weary heart lost in the brambles of its own confused and self-centered anguish. All self-deceptions and hungry ghosts yearning for the not yet are muted; if nature prays to its creator, then this is what it offers in unselfish gratitude.
Aisthesis is a shining forth or a showing itself forward. It carries the sense of exposition, exposure, expression. It is a moment of anticipation and fulfillment. It engages a noticing and being noticed by. Its simple design is its complex grandeur. It is an instant of a sudden making, a poetic move into sunlight and public view that reveals good intentions and silences desires that consume one in the fires of one’s own cravings to possess. In its orbit we indeed are transformed such that, in Joseph Campbell’s lexicon, we become transparent to transcendence, and are absorbed by the wholly other that is us and all that enwombs us, as Dante creates that verb in the 14th. century to capture the enveloping quality of Primal Love that moves the planets and stars of his mythopoetic cosmology. James Hillman writes beautifully about aesthetics, “what the Greeks called aesthesis,” which is “the way the world gets to us...through sense perception” (“Politics of Beauty” 148). In the health of a city’s soul life, Hillman links aesthetics to ethics, which we will see shortly is close to another writer’s sense of beauty and justice. Aesthetics is not decoration, an add on, after the functions of a thing have been satisfied. It is more primal and imaginal than that and is necessary for the survival of the soul life of community, conscience and even commerce.
Even as I write this early in the morning, the dark night is held gently back by the one lamp of my study. The transformation is renewed, recollected with the force of an imaginal remembrance to continue to harbor the original event’s moment in the soft amber of time itself congealing towards permanence, the eternal, what cannot finally, perish.
While its complexity admits of only a mention right now, I do believe it crucial as well as provocative to acknowledge the work of neuroscience, especially neurobiology, and specifically the work of Daniel Siegel on mindfulness, meditation and resonance with the world through specific areas of the brain. My intention here is not to reduce the above scene where I sat with my wife amid the fading generosity of the day in nature but rather to carry some of Siegel’s suggestions and observations into this conference. I refer specifically here to his work gathered in The Mindful Brain on the nature and structure of mirror neurons which, among other duties, allow us to become aware of awareness as well as attend to intention that he outlines in Appendix III in a section of the same name (347).
Within what he and others label our “social brain” is a mirror neuron system. Part of its workings is to allow each of us to “perceive the intentional goal-directed actions of others and links this perception to the priming of the motor systems to engage in that same action” (347). We, in effect, prepare to mirror in our own actions the behavior of others as one way to gain mindfulness towards them by attuning ourselves to their behavior. One of the results of such action is an increased awareness of the other through compassion. In the act of mirroring the other, we attune ourselves more cogently and directly with the other. Siegel calls this action the building of a “resonance circuit” (350) which “directly involves the mirror neurons” (350) that promotes or fosters “imitative action” through the developed neural and affective condition of “resonance” (353).
He then cites two other neuroscientists working on how we are able to empathize with others and ourselves: “Empathy is not a simple resonance of affect between the self and others. It involves an explicit representation of the subjectivity of the other” (354). Such a condition implicates the neural activity of “the ventral prefrontal cortex, with its strong connections with the limbic system, dorsolateral and medial prefrontal areas...”(354). Most fascinating for me in his discussion in Appendix III is the work of two other researchers, Decety and Chaminade (2003) who have discovered that in neuroimaging, studies strongly support the view that during the observation of actions produced by other individuals, and during the imagination of one’s own actions, there is specific recruitment of the neural structures which would normally be involved din the action generation of the same actions.... In this model, perception of emotion would activate the neural mechanisms that are responsible for the generation of emotions. Such a mechanism would prompt the observer to resonate with the state of another individual, with the observer activating the motor representations that gave rise to the observed stimulus,...(353)
From these observations on neuroscience, I wonder if the ancient Greeks grasped something of this physical phenomena in their discovery of mimesis, wherein, for example, the action of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex performed on stage could elicit a similar set of emotions, including compassion, for the spectacle unfolding before them and that this new discovery of mirror neurons does not explain the phenomenon as much as it further delineates the ability of each of us to place ourselves in the emotional shoes of another with such force and authority that we are transformed through empathy and compassion, in our own lives. In his Poetics, Aristotle called it pity (Poetics 58), along with fear, but we might want to shift it and call it compassion or empathy. He writes:” the effect of fear and pity may be created by spectacle; but it may also be created by the very structure of the events, and this method has priority and is the way of a better poet” (58). I am inclined to meditate on his observation of “the very structure” of the action, for it may be what has an analogous affect in the audience through the mirroring neurons that allow us as witnesses to participate by analogy in the mythos that underscores the logos of the drama.
One more point to highlight here as we consider how Aristotle might have been one of the first neuroscientists, at least in regard to his contemplating the way witnessing an action allows us to enter and become that action through neural resonance.
In a section entitled “The Origin of Poetry and the Growth of Drama” Aristotle observes: “For the beginnings of poetry in general, there appear to have been two causes, both rooted in human nature. Thus from childhood it is instinctive in human beings to imitate, and man differs from the other animals as the most imitative of all and getting his first lessons by imitation, and by instinct also all human beings take pleasure in imitations” (47). The impulse to imitate is of the instincts, and, as Siegel’s work as well as others attest, it is neurobiological through mirroring neurons that in their actions can give rise to empathy and compassion through resonance and attunement to the other.
Now taken together, we have some grounding to think about an aesthetics of transformation. And if you will stay with me for a bit longer, I want to add into this recipe another voice, Elaine Scarry, Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics at Harvard University. Her small elegant book, On Beauty and Being Just, has enormous stature, it seems to me, for this conference. Her insights into the nature of beauty is not far distant from either Aristotle or Siegel above. “Beauty,” she writes early on in her meditations, “brings copies of itself into the world. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people” (3), as I wished to express to you my own experience of being in tune with the closing of the day, an experience that I now want to call both aesthetic and mimetic in nature. She goes on to observe that beauty “sometimes gives rise to exact replication and other times to resemblances and still other times to things whose connection to the original site of inspiration is unrecognizable” (3).
From her insight above I want to add the following:
- a sense of abundance attends beauty’s presence.
- beauty affords or makes possible a moment of largesse.
- beauty can issue in forgiveness. In the moment of beauty’s presence I forgive others, and perhaps more importantly, myself.
- in the presence of beauty wounds can heal, or at least close a bit further than they had previously been allowed or invited to.
Scarry continues in her own attunement to beauty by suggesting that there exists a willingness by others to “continually revise one’s own location in order to place oneself in the path of beauty is the basic impulse underlying education. Further on in his book--and you see that I am not pausing to explore the implications of her rich insights because I am now in the service of getting more of them on the table for you to ponder—after exploring a scene from Homer’s Odyssey in which a speech that Odysseus makes on the island of the Phaecians, having stood for a moment in the presence of beauty of the young daughter of the king and queen of the island, Nausicaa, Scarry suggests that “first, beauty is sacred....Second, beauty is unprecedented....Something beautiful fills the mind yet invites the search for something beyond itself, something larger or something of the same scale with which it needs to be brought into relation” (22-29).
I understand her third quality above to point to some action of seeking resemblance, or mirroring, larger or smaller, and to move into attunement or in accord with the beautiful. Here she taps one of the wellsprings of this conference: the desire or impulse or energy that gathers around an aesthetic experience that nudges one to discover, create, invent that draws one further into the beautiful. Beauty, as I understand her insights, would seem to prompt in me a quiet energy, a fortitude, even courage; it also incites a poiesis, a making or an actively imagined shaping, to create an analogy of the object or a simulacrum of the relationship of my experience with the beautiful. Perhaps we need moments of aesthetic presence to align or re-align our courage to do—to be—not to have. Aesthetics does not provoke desire for possession but rather an impulse to promulgation.
Moreover, as Scarry observes, beauty has the capacity to hurl us forward and back, “requiring us to break new ground, but obliging us also to bridge back...to still earlier, ancient ground—is a model for the pliancy and lability of consciousness in education” (46). Now this elastic quality, of pliancy and mutability, is the necessary ground, it seems to me, for transforming something of ourselves into another level of resiliency, of malleability. I believe this is the stuff and stature of comedy—a willingness and openness to be softened, reshaped, re-formed and remade within the architecture of unfamiliar ground.
I say this because of a further development in Scarry’s argument: [that] “beauty and truth are allied is not a claim that the two are identical. It is not that a poem or a painting or a palm tree or a person is ‘true,’ but rather that is ignites the desire for truth...” (52). But beauty is, she claims dozens of pages later, is an awakening of perception (81) so that one sees more, not less of beauty’s impact on a sense of justice and “fair” play. Beauty can do so because it “affirms the aliveness of the other” (89) in a cooperative of mutual respect. “Fairness,” she claims, implicates “loveliness of countenance” as well as an ethical requirement of playing fair, being fair and acting fairly (91). Justice, she suggests, captures both the beauty of fairness and the ethical quality of being fair.
I bring to a close this portion of my presentation by citing a large influence on Scarry in her deliberations on beauty and ethics as a call to being more just: Iris Murdoch. In a talk she gave in 1967 on the nature of goodness and ethics, she argued that “anything which alters consciousness in the direction of unselfishness, objectivity and realism is to be connected with virtue” (qtd. in Scarry 112). She aligns herself with Scarry’s interest when she writes in that same lecture that what in our surroundings is an occasion for “unselfing,” and that is what is popularly called beauty” (113). Beauty, rightly congealed in the imagination of the heart, places us “in the service of something else” (113). We step off the center stage of importance and allow the other—be it an image, an idea, a person, an impulse—to gain more prominence. This may be the moment in which we have engaged the most equality, by attending to the role, as Scarry calls it, “of the lateral figure” (113).
Poetics and Beauty—
How might our engagement and responses to poetry open us to the lateral position that allows us to be in the service of something other than our own desires and wishes? I believe it can. Let us therefore engage a poem or two, if time allows, and to read with an open heart what I call the beauty of words in the formation of the sublime. In each encounter, let us pose a few questions to our experience:
1. Where does the poem arrest or slow you down?
2. What passages, word, sentence, asks you to meditate more deeply on it?
3. What associations are brought forward as a result of your halting and staying with the line for a few moments?
4. What change, shift, emerging thought or image, or affect begins to grow in you as a result of the reading and, at best, rereading?
The first poem is by Mary Oliver...
A blue preacher
flew toward the swamp,
in slow motion.
On the leafy banks,
an old Chinese poet,
hunched in the white gown of his wings,
was the kind of dark silk
that has silver lines
shot through it
when it is touched by the wind
or is splashed upward,
in a small, quick flower,
by the life beneath it.
made his difficult landing,
his skirts up around his knees.
The poet’s eyes
flared, just as a poet’s eyes
are said to do
when the poet is awakened
from the forest of meditation.
It was summer.
It was only a few moments past the sun’s rising,
which meant that the whole long sweet day
lay before them.
They greeted each other,
rumpling their gowns for an instant,
and then smoothing them.
They entered the water,
and instantly two more herons—
equally as beautiful—
joined them and stood just beneath them
in the black, polished water
where they fished, all day. -Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems, 81-82
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Five A.Am. in the Pinewoods
their hoofprints in the deep
needles and knew
they ended the long night
under the pines, walking
like two mute
and beautiful women toward
the deeper woods, so I
got up in the dark and
went there. They came
slowly down the hill
and looked at me sitting under
the blue trees, shyly
closer and stared
from under their thick lashes and even
nibbled some damp
tassels of weeds. This
is not a poem about a dream,
though it could be.
This is a poem about the world
that is ours, or could be.
one of then—I swear it!—
would have come to my arms.
But the other
stamped sharp hoof in the pine needles like
the tap of sanity,
and they went off together through
the trees. When I woke
I was alone,
I was thinking:
so this is how you swim inward,
so this is how you flow outward,
so this is how you pray. -Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems, 83-84
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Ah, what was there in that light-giving candle that it set fire to
the heart, and snatched the heart away?
You who have set fire to my heart, I am consumed, O friend;
come quickly, quickly!
The form of the heart is not a created form, for the beauty of
God manifested itself from the cheek of the heart.
I have no succor save in his sugar, I have no profit save in his lip.
Remember him who one dawn released this heart of mine
From the chain of your tress.
My soul, the first time I saw you my soul heard something
from your soul.
When my heart drank water from your fountain it drowned in
you, and the torrent snatched me away.
- Jalal al-Din Rumi, Mystical Poems of Rumi: First Selection, Poems 1-200, 109
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My verse resembles the bread of Egypt—night passes over it,
and you cannot eat it any more.
Devour it the moment it is fresh, before the dust settles upon
Its place is the warm climate of the heart; in this world it dies
Like a fish it quivered for an instant on dry land, another
moment and you see it is cold.
Even if you eat it imagining it is fresh, it is necessary to
conjure up many images.
What you drink is really your own imagination; it is no old
tale, my good man.
............................................... -Mystical Poems of Rumi, 107
Aristotle. Aristotle’s Poetics. Trans. Leon Golden, Commentary O.B. Hardison, Jr. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1968.
Hillman, James. City and Soul. Vol. 2 of The Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman. Ed. Robert J. Leaver. Putnam, Conn., Spring P., 2006.
Joyce, James. Ulysses. Foreword by Anthony Burgess. New York: Book-of-the-Month Club, 1982.
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. Norwalk, Connecticut: The Easton P, 1977.
Oliver, Mary. New and Selected Poems. Vol. One. Boston: Beacon, 1992.
Rumi, Jalal al-Din. Mystical Poems of Rumi 1: First Selection, Poems 1-200. Trans. A.J. Arberry. Chicago: U Chicago P, 1968.
Scarry, Elaine. On Beauty and Being Just. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999.
Siegel, Daniel. The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being. New York: Norton, 2008.
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