The Persistence of Misery

Last semester, I either approached transcendence or engaged in criminal levels of pseudointellectual pretense…where should I begin?

…I guess history is good as anything. At my university, I have the privilege of being a part of a select group of students who — along with receiving a scholarship, of course — engage in semester-long enrichment seminars. Each of these seminars, called “faculty mentor groups,” is designed to offer an educational experience that might certainly not be found in a traditional classroom.

Whenever I’ve seen faculty mentor groups for religious topics in a given semester, I’ve jumped on the opportunity to take those classes. (The last group I had relating to a religious topic was one using Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God as a springboard for how we might achieve inter-religious harmony — I’ve written skeptically about our possibly flawed view of inter-religious harmony.)

Last semester, I picked a class called Creativity as a Transcendent Act.

To be honest, I go into these philosophically-oriented classes with some incredulity. As an agnostic atheist (or whatever), I often am a bit wary or skeptical of what we’ll discuss and what angles we’ll take. With a class mentioning transcendent acts, I was skeptical of “transcendence” from the start, but also skeptical that one semester’s time could lead one to find it even if it did exist — especially when at the onset, no one may even know for what he is looking.

I appreciated that the first thing we did in the class was develop, as a group, a working definition of transcendence. I also appreciated that in our discussion, there were others who were wary of particular aspects of a definition of transcendence. As we talked, one member of our discussion group remarked that she didn’t feel that transcendence needed to point to some higher being…that it could be something within humanity, even if it was an improved and cultivated humanity. That became the ground for a friendly tension — would our definition ultimately appeal to something intrinsically human or something intrinsically not?

One definition that we came to on the latter part of the spectrum was: transcendence is the point when artist and audience can hear and pass on the artwork’s message. In this sense, however one attributes it, artworks have the capacity to take on a life and voice of their own, and make quiet demands (a still small voice, you might say) on artist or audience. In good art (not just visual, but also aural, literary…whatever), we can recognize when a character (or scene, or action, or whatever) “feels” right. We can recognize, “That character would not have done that,” even though it would seem that if an artist were “creator” of her character, she ought be able to make the character do whatever she wants with no complaints. The character has a life beyond the artist.

Madeleine L'EngleI was, of course, skeptical of this definition (what makes an art work “come to life”? What speaks to artist and audience that is independent of either?)…but in a way, I was also hopeful. I was intrigued by a quotation from Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art we had discussed to prime our discussion. It asserted that creative acts — provided an artist is one of “integrity” — would allow us to “see matter rendered spiritual…even when the artist does not personally believe in God.” That principled artist would become “a genuine servant of the glory which he does not recognize.”

Our group ultimately settled on a definition on the far other side of the spectrum: transcendence is the convergence between universal language and human experience. It required no appeal to any outside force, and indeed seemed to describe something (even if I’m not sure anymore that it captures something worth of the name “transcendence.”) Instead, the idea is this: our human languages are filled with parochial and proprietary aspects. They are utterly regional. But elements of art are universal. Certain ways of arranging the elements together are universal, so we can employ this universal language to express our human experiences in a way that transcends the limitations of language[1. Oh, should I mention that two semesters ago, my faculty mentor group was about bicultural minds — the cultural impact of language and multilingualism on culture and the brain? So in a way, we discussed some of these same issues of the regional barriers of human language as opposed to music, etc.].

I liked this definition far more.

"Shepherd Flow," J. Vincent Scarpace, 2011
"Shepherd Flow," J. Vincent Scarpace, 2011

Moving from discussion into actual painting was difficult. Let me say that I find acrylic to be a…trying medium. I think our resident artist instructor, J. Vincent Scarpace (he paints fish! and sea turtles), helped me to move beyond my desire for very representational, realist works (my original art pieces were of fencing and fencers…which isn’t the best thing to do when you don’t know how to paint anatomy and you’re aware that you don’t know it.) I took a session on acrylic painting originally to try to improve my painting of fencers, but I learned some techniques with color and texture — of scraping and dragging pregnant dollops of red, blue, and yellow together by palette knife — that I liked more.

And so, I had no idea what I was doing…I just knew I wanted to explore these techniques. And it was a beautiful painting. Of primary colors…and at their marriages, their progeny of beautiful oranges and greens and violets. It was almost perfect, except for a few instances where the oranges and the greens and the violets would intersect to produce the most putrid, inbred browns.

Persistence of Misery: Wellness Detail
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But ultimately (albeit secretly), I wanted for something to shake my skepticism and speak to me about how the painting must be directed. How this beauty must be finished.

…To be honest, I didn’t feel much of anything until I wrote the explanatory sidebar for the painting. J. Vincent and our faculty mentor, Professor Jon Kotinek, engineered for our paintings to be shown with artists’ statements at a local gallery/cafe, the Village Downtown and Art979 so we had to write sidebars for viewers to read as companions to the art. But I didn’t quite know what I was explaining. One day, I woke up sick, and I had a thought.

The common cold is misery.

If I prefer any form of art, it is definitely writing. Maybe I’m not any better at it than I am at painting, but I feel better at it.

So, I wrote about the common cold.

When suffering, you may have wished to have rather caught death. But you knew the irrationality therein, because you knew that things had been better before…that this too shall pass. But memories do not persist. Recent misery redefines recollected memory[2. This reminds me of a blog post by John Gustav-Wrathall that ultimately reminded me to get to writing this post in the first place. In his post Grace, he tells with a great analogy of how overwhelming and ubiquitous certain miserable states can be.]. (Be glad that wellness does too — even now, your recollection of miserable illness is mentally inchoate.[3. This reminds me of a person’s FASCINATING recollection of his accident-induced extreme cognitive impairment. Think Flowers for Algernon, but in reverse. He can recall certain details of the the retardation, but now his recollection is colored with analyses that were impossible at the time.])

What of color — just one element we have dared declare universal? Would you notice if one day, what you call red became what you call green? Could you distinguish between mischievous neurosurgery that tampered with your optic nerve (inverting future perception) as opposed to your memories (inverting your past perception)?

I had read a lot about qualia and the subjectivity of color. Of Daniel Dennett’s criticisms of  qualia. It all was coming together. Why talk about universal elements of art (like color) when color is inherently subjective[3. Another aside: as a group we had one to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and I had seen Carlos Cruz-Diez‘s “Color in Time and Space” exhibit on manipulating color perception through physical space {“physichromie“} in the same vein. See this interview also: “Color in its essence is ambiguous and unstable. It is created in the moment. Color has no pastor future. Color exists by itself; it doesn’t need form. It happens in space. Our culture doesn’t teach us to read the space, only the form. That’s why I experimented with backgrounds that would give me that notion of the instability of color.”].

Persistence of Misery: Sick Detail
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I recalled the browns that marred my painting, and continued writing.

Maybe, we should accept that colors, their layers and mixtures, are (like memories and emotions) effervescing events, not stark statues…So why do I feel that this brown bleakness will never bloom into brilliance?

And as soon as I wrote “brown bleakness,” I knew how the painting had to be completed.

…That although this painting was once well, perhaps it ought to die?

I cried. I started screaming. There was no one in the room, but I started screaming, “No!” over and over again. I knew that the only way for the work to be completed…for it to tell a truth about the human experience…would be if I painted brown bleakness over my beautiful, brilliant colors. The art had its own destiny, and to be authentic, I could only be “a servant of the glory which I did not recognize.”

…Maybe, one day I’ll become well enough to see–