Murasaki Shikibu, if not dissected psychoanalytically, represents a landmark of women literacy in the history of the world. As court lady in the ancient Japanese empire of the Fujiwara period, Murasaki pens down what is seldom referred to as the first novel in the world.
Murasaki is able to write a sort of historical account of her period due to the proliferation of Chinese language in the elite circle of Japan. Daughter of an imperial aristocrat, she was exposed to the learning of Chinese which was seen as a status symbol for the high ranking families in the region. Even though Japanese relations and actual cultural importations from China were put to halt by her time, she does create a cultural bridge between the prosperous Chinese civilisation and her own northern city of Heian Kyo (modern day Kyoto).
In her massively popular The Tale of Genji, we see quite an insightful account of Japanese socio-cultural life of the early eleventh century. Out of many themes, what marks the depth of the entire novel is the spiritual element that Murasaki is able to grasp and reflect upon the circumstances of her real life. After the death of her husband we see the reflection of Buddhist ideas of impermanence and universal transience in the poetry of Murasaki who herself was a devout Buddhist.
Buddhism (Tendai) came to Japan from the Chinese hills and became the dominant religious faith during Murasaki’s time. The Mahayana Buddhism and its principle of resignation from the sorrows of the world reflected heavily in the Japanese poetry of the ancient period; even though the same wasn’t followed to the letter in practice.
Japanese Buddhism was fascinated with the concept of fleeting nature of the world and the same can be seen in this poem from the Nirvana Sutra:
Brightly coloured though the blossoms be, All are doomed to scatter. So in this world of ours, Who will last forever?
So in Japanese Buddhism, the memento mori should not be a grinning skull but the images such as scattering of blossoms or the yellowing of autumn leaves, which served to remind them that all beautiful things must soon pass away.
The host full of women Japanese writers of the period include one of the most emotionally intellectual poetess Izumi Shikibu. In her poetry, we can find an outspoken lamentation about death and illness. This is an excerpt from a splendid and one of the heart warming poems she composed, and this one, she wrote on her death bed:
Yo no naka wo
Nani ni tatoemu
Kogiyuke fune no
Ato no shiranami.
Yo no naka wo
Hana miru hodo no
Kuraki michi ni zo
Haruka ni terase
Yama no ha no tsuki.
This was translated by Arthur Waley:
This world of ours –
To what shall I compare it?
To the white waves behind the boat
As it rows away at dawn
This world of ours –
Why should we lament it?
Let us view it as we do the cherries
That blossom on the hills
Out of the dark
Into the dark path
I must now enter:
Shine on me from afar,
Moon of the mountain fringe
The same lamentation about the fleeting nature of life can be seen the sombre dispositions of Murasaki Shikibu. The Tale of Genji is heavily preoccupied with evanescence and death. She writes (in her diary) – ‘If only I had been more adoptable and respond to the pleasure of this fleeting existence with a little more youthful enthusiasm! In her verse she writes:
Like the waterfowl that play there on the lake
I too am floating along the surface
Of a transient world
Apart from lamentation about the sorrows of life, we see a sense of understanding of the transience nature of the world. Another Japanese writer Sei Shonagon writes about the death of her mother –
“The moaning period had come to an end and as usual time was hanging heavily on hands. I took out my psaltery and, as I dusted it, plucked occasionally at the strings. Now there was no longer a taboo on playing music, and I reflected sadly on the transience of this world.“
And finally Murasaki writes –
As I walk across the bridge
That spans the Ford of Yume
I see that this world of ours too
Is like a floating bridge of dreams
Japanese poetry of the ancient period cumulatively reflects the theme of resignation, an ideal so central in the teaching of Buddhism. Even though the subject matter focused on resignation, the very act of writing and creating a body of literature that is homegrown, shows a complete opposite of it. As the eleventh century marks the blossoming of Japanese indigenous culture, after centuries of Chinese and Korean imitation, the idea of democratisation of art and the aesthetics itself have something to cry and take pride at the same time.
Imagination is the only purpose upon which existence rests. The castles we built first materialise in our heads before turning into stones and cement. Ursula K Le Guin, a thinker of our times and beyond, said reading is imperative to imagination and reading only happens in the space of intimacy, faith and silence. Learning, says Le Guin, is a form of reading and vice versa. She further adds that imagination assumes much more importance in this post-capitalist world where every innovative human thought has been reduced to commodification for it to participate in the operational profit making process. Imagination, hence, needs to happen in communities and companionship; blossoming not on confrontation of ideas but on compassion of thoughts.
We see valuation of imagination in the works of one of the greatest existential philosophers – Schopenhauer. He says that the genius is the one who differs not only in degrees of excellence but also in vision. Therefore, a creative genius is often subjected to condemnation or ridicule by contemporaries.
Another fascinating mouthpiece of soaring imagination would undoubtedly be William Blake and his illustrations in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Subjected to a life of abject poverty, Blake believed in an abstract idea of spirituality which knew no reverence other then the reverence of soul’s self transcendence. Blake’s borderline agnosticism was not merely a political stance but a major imaginative flight. The idea of creating self cosmogony and one’s own definition of faith and spirituality is a thought that is still under a process of evolution in the 21st century, and a thought that we need today more than ever.
Famously termed as the father of Modernist Art, Cezanne through his seminal work named Large Bathers, captured the historical shift of aesthetics in European art. A painting that took seven years to complete and was in process of being completed till Cezanne’s death, has become a celebratory piece that represents the genesis of modernism and the revival of impressionism in European aesthetics.
1. Art Appreciation
The painting has been made by keeping the geometrical construction in mind which was quite prevalent in the perspective art of renaissance; especially the use of triangles. We can see the division of painting into three triangles. The first two triangles show the groupings of six women on each side of the painting and the third triangle is the larger figure that contains both these triangles as well as the background of the painting and meets at the point where the two trees meet in the sky. Such geometrical construction is used to create balance in the artwork.
We can see the reflection of Classicism here which is very similar to the famous work named Diana and Actaeon by the late renaissance Venetian artist Titian. In both these works there has been attempt to visualise human nudity in public space by making human body a primary language of expression (a heavy characteristic of the entire Classical Art). Even if we focus on the two standing women in the picture, the one in the left (woman striding from the tree) looks similar to the 18th century sculpture of goddess Diana and the one in the right, with the positioning of her knees, shows uncanny resemblance to the ancient sculpture of Venus de Milo.
However, this is also a major shift from Classicism for its lack of detailing in the depiction of human body. Now this is where this painting becomes fascinating.
Diana and Actaeon by Titian (1556-1559)
Inspired by the Impressionist school of art that focuses on elements of art such as light and colours rather than objects, Cezanne here brings back our focus on the fact that it is the element and not the object that is the subject matter of this painting. One can say that this is the purest form of commentary on Classicism where the Classical fascination and technique is used to make something which is a complete deviation from the Classical school. This is evident from the bodies of the women in the painting. Instead of showing sensuality, there is heavy abstraction. So much so that the white marks on the bodies are nothing but the display of the canvas itself for the painter did not choose to paint these spaces. By doing so, he takes out attention from the beauty of a woman’s body to the shapes and forms that represent it (elements of art).
Cezanne’s focus on abstraction is evident from the figures on the two extreme ends of the painting where these figures are not even completed and are represented in a sketched form. Also, two figures in the background, a man and a horse, are also represented in the most abstract form possible, thereby restricting our appreciation to the elements such as colours (beautiful shades of blue and orange) and shapes. The use of flat strokes to depict the sky and the leaves, also weighs towards impressionism and abstraction.
2. Art Philosophy and History
The most striking theory of this painting is its heavy commentary on movement. The mixture of Classical subject matter and Impressionist technique shows the historical shift in the European art practice of the period – which is a shift from perspective realism of renaissance to the abstraction and use of elements of art. If we look into the painting, we can see that it is divided into three parts:
First part is the representation of Classical art by the depiction of nude women bathing in public.
Second part is the river that separates the the first part and the background.
Third part is the background where we see a man moving away from the painting to another direction.
It is said in one of the interpretations that the man in the background is Cezanne himself and his movement depicts an act of moving away from the traditions of Classical art to a practice that is more elemental in nature. Another example of movement, is the swimmer, who also being distanced from the first part, is shown in moving abstraction.
The other theory that is vocal in this painting is that of alienation. At least six women in the painting are looking away from the audience; and the ones that are staring within the space of painting, have blurred faces. In addition to this we can see spaces in the figures which are left white and shows the bare canvass, which to much of conspiracy theories, can be associated with an external force interrupting the artwork or the purest expression of nudity – which is, no colour at all! Well, all this representation of alienation is there because Cezanne was heavily influenced by the Impressionists. However, it also creates an element of chaos and spontaneity in the painting. Something which takes me to this idea of Dissolving and Becoming.
The burring figures in the painting as well as the use of flat strokes give this impression that either the scene is captured during its dissolution or during its becoming. This Dissolving-Becoming dichotomy is synonymous with the process through which we perceive reality. The velocity in which the mind captures the everyday display of reality and processes it is so fast and chaotic that we lose out on understanding or knowing that exact moment when perception takes place. That exact moment when external signals are processed into knowledge. And this is precisely what can be read in the disturbances of this painting. If we refer to my previous piece on Alan de Button’s Art as Therapy, we can bring his idea of the role of art in creating emotional equilibrium to this painting. Cezanne’s construction of chaos makes the viewer use to neurological process of perception to understand the process of perception itself – which is an affair so fast that it reduces the reality to indiscernible representations. It is this understanding of the role of art that not only designated Cezanne as a father of modernism but also made his works an inspiration for future schools such as cubism.
This picture is one of the most celebrated examples of how art takes the position of a moral canon to teach us about emotional equilibrium in life. Surfacing in Alan de Botton and John Armstrong’s “Art as Therapy”, this picture shows a couple unconsciously becoming a language of grief in public while being perched on a court bench. While man’s face is lost in obscurity, something that may flow from his complete loss of understanding of this relationship, the woman finds herself under the light and hence becomes the focal point of the artwork. The scarf adorning woman is silently staring at a space within the picture showing signs of being lost in contemplation. The ‘would have been(s)’ of life are coming back to haunt her as she prepares to embrace a so called ‘immoral’ act of taking divorce. This idea of contemplating the choices is the central argument of the artwork; for the representation of oblivion through the figures in the background show the smallness of one’s tragedy in others’ eyes.
Alan de Botton argues that art can be an attempt to encourage our better selves through coded messages of exhortation and admonition, i.e., art can help us in balancing our emotional life by exposing us to emotions that stops us from fulfillment or equilibrium. For instance, a fighting couple may not be able to evaluate the level of grief they might face at the day of divorce and this artwork might make them aware of that. Therefore, art for de Button is important in creating equilibrium in ourselves.
Moreover, the very fact that the picture lacks normative attitude and shows the scene as it is shows that art doesn’t claim the space of moral canon as understood by the society. Rather, it shows the consequent side of not abiding to a particular moral standard and leaves the choice to the spectator.
If sub consciousness is to be formed by the social rules of my being,
Could I ever dream of an island where sexual liberty
Is the only form of freedom, where
Emotions are put in the ball sack and consent speaks from the vagina.
If my conscience is made up of a billion neurons that possess infinite degree of freedom Then I
Shall not be talking about sex with a friend I met a week ago, or any friend from tinder, wait? Are we supposed to make friends on tinder?
And if you say yes, then are you telling me to be friends with a person who reduced the elements of my identity to a set of five pictures showing smiles that have been captured only to be stolen from the moment they lived in, for me to get objectified and to let a mobile screen decide whether I’m Left or Right?
But wait, there’s still tinder on my phone, and maybe
Grindr or Her, maybe hidden or encrypted for in my world
Sexuality craves for privacy and privacy is a privilege.
In my world,
Or should I say,
The world I’m subjected to,
My existence is timed by the clocks of capitalism and the dogma of the metaphysical
My existence is not a space that I carve out for myself but a void I’m subjected to fill in,
But this, this is your world, the world
Plagued by the science of religion and religious faith in science
So I choose to live in my world,
Not escape, but live
A world where memories are not atoms and molecules of thermodynamics so that I can choose to fill the unfinished painting with my own colours
A world where emotions are not correlative with circumstances and I can be non-conforming to the expected norms of emotional behaviour, I can
Be happy for the greatest tragedy for I know it is not greater than my will to be happy
A world where happiness is all pervasive and the moments of grief are merely my disability to trace happiness in the most ordinary of manifestations
A world where being human is not to make mistakes and fall but to be strong and achieve one’s own spirituality
In my world, my existence is not defined by the realities of the physical world around me, but
By the diversity and freedom that I know I’m made up of.
So, if my consciousness and sub consciousness ever sit to have a meaningful conversation on a dinner table..
I have not been much of a success on dating apps. Like unread books in my library, these set of ‘romantic constructions’ just glare at me from my mobile screen hoping to be touched and looked into. Despite such blatant apathy I’m unable to delete them. I often find myself split into a binary while addressing a momentary excitation to just pull them off the roots. Rather, I often end up using them while thinking of doing the contrary. Why?
If you’ve ever followed my writing, you would know the river that I am. While flowing through territories of life, I often have people embarking upon me. And I; I carry them to their intended shores. However, the approaching spring of this year has put me to think about the larger question of self. What and where am I in all this processes I flow through?
I often defend my falling to the fact that I’m a human. I reduce my identity to a digital shot of a frozen smile snatched away from the moment it belonged to because a ‘prospect lover’ on the other side of the screen wants to ‘know me more’. Why? Because I’m a human. I make mistakes. I need to make my knees weak so that I can be held in alien arms. To be loved and understood in language and gestures that is not mine but I somehow construct to help others in understanding myself. And an excuse for all this and many more being – I’m a human!
It pains me to think that how conveniently we have alienated the idea of being self contented and emotionally strong to a metaphysical state of being. I’m expected to reach a sense of spirituality to put my life in order; spirituality which itself has been taken away from my own soul. This “meta-humanizing” of something so essential to our existence is anything but celebratory. To me, it is a construction of a digital world that has done to the idea of being human a slippage of meaning.
I think we need to understand this association of alienating oneself from one’s own answers with humanness is very dehumanizing. It is this illusion of humanity through which we have to look for the real one. And look no far but within. It is not your falling that makes you human but your strength to survive it. To me, it is that flicker of light I see in a distance, the only light in girthed darkness, and I know it is my calling. That flicker of light is no one but myself; moving a little away from this to reach a somewhere there.
What is music to our eyes? It is not the metaphorical use of the word for a visual aesthetic substance but an inquiry to understand the coordinated relationship between the two.
It is when the words drenched in rhythm are let loose on one’s senses that one realises the transcending nature of oneself. It is hardly conflicted that music holds potential to transcend our conscience of its physicality. So, how is it that we often find ourselves in a redundancy of materialism where the context of our physical presence does not resonate with our mental understanding of our own existence? Well, that is the extension that I’m seeking to establish here.
Gaston Bachelard, a celebrated French philosopher, talks about paradoxical nature of time. In his seminal work Intuition of the Instant he quite scientifically establishes the paradox of time in which time’s essence lies in duration, but creativity, in everything that breaks free from it. Duration and Time then come across as antithetical to each other. Duration, to Bachelard, is something that is continuous and creates an artificial distinction between present and future. To the contrary, time is something that is ‘instant’ or ‘in the moment’. Therefore, time is a severing away from the linearity of duration (something that he calls mutation) and can only be creative in the present.
It is Bachelard’s fascination with originality and uniqueness that makes him the centre of inquiry in this essay. To him, originality or creativity cannot be understood through Duration because in the realm of Duration, every moment has to have a connection with something in the past. Therefore, he argues that creativity can only happen when action (time) breaks away (sudden mutation) from the historicity of duration. So, the ‘time’ that exists at that moment of sudden mutation is the only action worth understanding and hence is natural. The other distinction of past and future is a mere artificial construction.
We can see the parallel of the same principle in Bachelard’s explanation of science. To him, science rests on an Epistemological Break which says that true creativity in the history of science is possible only when the history is discontinued and the past theory is negated at a particular time.
In the theory of Roupnel, something that Bachelard responded to in his work, art occupies a significant position. According to Roupnel, constant innovation (renewing mutation) is important for evolution and since art is created through original sensations, it becomes an ‘instant’ and hence occupies a key place in this process. In both of these explanations we see a great emphasis being put on the instantaneous nature of creativity, something which I would like to extend to the notion of existence within time.
Coming back to my hypothesis, I’m here to question what is the relationship of music with our eyes. Is it a mere artistic involvement or is it a higher process of transcendence that outs the very idea of existence and time into question?
When we listen to music, we make a choice. The choice, either consciously or subconsciously involves a selection, a song or a beat, that carries a meaning in itself. As a walker, I often listen to music when I’m travelling or walking from work to home or vice versa. So I can say that music is involved in my life when I already exist in a specific spacio-temporal milieu in time which is relative to my surroundings and is universal for each person around me. So it is also safe to say that the involvement of music in my life (for instance while walking from work to home) is a Duration (In Bachelard’s sense). “I listened to 5 songs while walking from work to home”, justifies the same. This principle might please Bergson but I say that it holds only to a voyeur.
The very idea that we choose a particular song at a particular moment speaks a lot about our cognition of letting an external output coordinate with an internal motivation of brain (neurophysiology argument). The decision making process of the brain, an emotional structure that involves hypothalamus and cerebral cortex, evidences that our music selection is a choice that involves a goal orientation approach. We choose a song which our limbic system and reticular formation tells us to be of a good yield in the past.
So it can be safely accepted that involvement of music in our life is mostly a choice. Therefore, it can be said that there is some sense of instantaneous action (sudden mutation) involved in our music listening practice. Hence, I would deduce that when we listen to music we are not just responding to what has happened in the past, or being just a point in the chain of Duration, but we are generating or experiencing something original and unique. We are living in Time and not Duration. Or it can be said, it is a real perception of time within a realm of Duration garbed as artificial Time.
Now, let’s extend this postulate to the question of one’s existence in the designated spacio-temporal environment. So the question that emerges is when I listen to music while travelling from work to home, do I exist in the time and space of my surroundings or do I transcend to a different instant of time. If I rely on the premise forwarded by Bachelard, my process of listening music is mutation from the historicity of the context around me. And since it’s a mutation, whatever is created during that process of listening music, through my cognitive methods, is original, hence creativity. So it would be safe to say that during the music listening process, I exist in Time and not Duration.
Now that my question of existence is sorted, I shall now move on to my question of creation. So, when I use my eyes while listening to music to envisage a deconstruction of the context around me, am I being an artist or maker of that process? Theodor Lipps in his radical hypothesis on art said that the power of an artwork doesn’t lie in the work itself. It is involved in the process where the viewer considers that artwork to be beautiful. It depends on what viewer makes of it. Hence, it is the viewer who becomes the artist of this new creative process. Extending Lipps postulate to the study of music, I realise the parallels can be drawn. Beethoven would not mean the same to the Liberal Arts students in Ukraine as what he stands for a 60 year old housewife in France. However, I do not stop at establishing semiotic nature of music. I want to take the liberty of extending it to the idea of construction (creativity). I believe that sometimes music becomes a catalyst to a higher creative process sourcing from ourselves. It is us who reach a moment in time where it is not the inherent meaning of the music that we are responding to but rather a new construction of meaning that forms a distinct artistic narrative. So it is when we listen to music that we are involved in a process of artistic construction (keeping in mind the Bachelard’s idea of mutation).
After analysing every inch of my mental curiosity, it would be good to condense my conclusion into a nutshell. I believe that when we listen to music (not as a voyeur) we divorce our existence from the spacio-temporal milieu of our surrounding and transcend to a new instant of time (since time has been proven to be relative). This instant of time is marked by a mutation from the Duration that we were involved in while not listening to music. It is in the instantaneous moment of music listening process that we are involved in a creative activity of forming original works (since art is premised on the freshness of original sensations and every moment in music listening process is mutated from any historical attachment). Thus, it is we who are the artist of this new artistic construction that is formed while we exist in space of time that is severed from the historicity of our physical surrounding in the context it exists.
. I feel empowered now of the fact that music no longer alienates me from my own artistic constructions. I wish I could put them down to concrete works of literature (sometimes I do though) but I get too consumed in the momentary meaning of my own constructions.