Aubade for America

"Somewhere in America," 2011

"Somewhere in America," 2011

I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.
— Albert Einstein

Dear Everybody,

This past week I have encountered two distinct suggestions about the nature of contemporary discourse, that ephemeral fabric which binds and blinds us. One has come in the form of so-called politics (and publicity) and consists of a frantic, ego-driven melee of statements; the other has come in the form of artistry (and introspection) and consists of the thoughtful, selfless association of gestures. In other words, this past week I have 1) read headlines about the presidential race, and 2) lived in a household with compassionate, open-minded, hard-working people.

The other day, Jim handed me a book called The Innocent Eye: Children's Art and the Modern Artist by Jonathan Fineberg, and a number of things came together (or at least came rushing to mind). Here's the final paragraph of the first chapter, for a start:

Childhood is, after all, something all humans have in common. Yet ‘the child within’ each of us, to use the phrase of the Cobra artists, is a child necessarily buried by the conventions of adult socialization. It is taken for granted today that this hidden ‘child within’ nonetheless exercises potent influences on the entire range of the adult’s behavior, all the more so when buried beyond recognition in the adult unconscious where one cannot easily reach it to address and modify its energy. Perhaps that is precisely why we use ‘childish’ as a term of denial and rebuke—a taboo for the adult—and find the revelation of the child-like in works of modern art so disturbing; they threaten our pact with the world. The influence of child art on modern artists has barely been mentioned as a possibility in the scholarship on modern art and not even the artists have been eager to discuss it. The cliché that my child can paint a Hans Hofmann wards off our recognition in works of modern art of the primal urges of our own childhood, attempting to trivialize the unspeakable revelation of the unconscious mind.

The grace of this idea stems from the fact that every adult human being was once a child, which means that we all have the capacity to relate (and our views reflect our own experiences). When I observe the modern politician's relationship to this fact, I see manifest dissociation, a world of public scrutiny, pedestals, push and shove. When I observe the artist's relationship to this fact, I see manifest independence, a world of personal scrutiny, practice, give and take. Dissociation and independence both create space. What factors contribute to our engagement of space? Who, in today's society, exemplifies a healthy engagement? Politicians? Artists? Mothers and fathers? Who are we watching? Who can we see?

Poetry is so important because of the quality of space it activates when it is shared—a deep, sometimes terrifyingly vast field of meanings real, perfect, possible, and indeterminate. This depth and its quality speaks at once to the simultaneous revelation of the apparent and the hidden, what Stéphane Mallarmé might call a "pure notion":

What is the purpose of the miracle of transposing a fact of nature into its almost vibratory disappearance by means of the play of words, if it is not that there may emanate from it, without the embarrassment of an immediate or concrete reminder, the pure notion.
— "Crise de vers," 1886

When language (as poetry) registers immediately, I feel like a conduit, electric with purpose. When language (as poetry) confounds, I may feel thrilled or frustrated or insufficient, and the beauty of it is that the space remains quietly available to my process of understanding. It is this way with our bodies and minds, quietly available to us, sometimes gratifying, sometimes rebellious, always our own. So again I ask: Who can we see? And what is the recourse available to us?

Painting is a blind man’s profession. He paints not what he sees, but what he feels, what he tells himself about what he has seen.
— Pablo Picasso

Here is a recent painting by Indigo Deany that powerfully embodies this view:

24" x 36" | acryllic |

24" x 36" | acryllic |



I see politicians—people whose professional practice, under the "American" system, is the representation of other people—struggling to acknowledge innocence. (Original sin is a useful crutch in this struggle.) And the 'inner child' comes out all the same: tears, tantrums and all. And I see artists—people whose practice is passion and vision, professional relevance notwithstanding—struggling to embrace innocence. (Original sin is an allegory in this struggle.) Just because I lean toward the artist's example does not make the politician's any less valuable or true. One gives me faith, one gives me fear. Can I distinguish between the two? Can I choose?


Here is an excerpt from Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground:

I would not be at all surprised, for instance, if suddenly and without the slightest possible reason a gentleman ... were to arise amid all that future reign of universal common sense and ... say to us all, “... what about giving all this common sense a mighty kick ... send all these logarithms to the devil so that we can again live according to our foolish will?” That wouldn’t matter, either, but for the regrettable fact that he would certainly find followers.

The gentleman would find followers because of what Fineberg (in exploring "The Strategic Childhood of Jean Dubuffet") calls "the irreducibly irrational in man" (and also, I might add, the undeniable might of "yes"—one's decision to accept anything at all). However, it is the author (Dostoyevsky), not the emergent gentleman, who models a conscious approach to the fathomless depths of experience and identity. Fineberg speaks of French artist Jean Dubuffet's perspective: "The entry of the powerful, irrational forces of the unconscious mind, breaking through the ice of conventional thinking, provide a fissure through which one may slip into a simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying authenticity of experience." Where are the spaces in which we can undergo this journey of self-understanding and expression? Is the canvass too plain or the page too blank or the silence too open? Do we lack the necessary skills?

No. We have what we need.

Einstein's expression at the start of this thought-experiment reads like a direct embrace of his inner child. To become especially familiar with a subject requires something deeper than the skill apparent—it requires practice, which Michelangelo qualified by saying:

Genius is eternal patience.

We are born practitioners, and I must admit that a vote does not particularly feel like enough exercise. It is one of our many options. Whatever "happens" on November the 8th, remember that the election is no source of empowerment or summary of human power: You are. We were children before we were party-members and proletariats. We are those children still. Only now, we are unafraid of the dark. We sleep in it. As Anne Waldman wrote in Dream Book of Fez:

logic of dreams helps body heal.
when attacks prevail on the marketplace.
when the schoolmaster dies.
when tourists die. when nightmare lives.
and the floor all littered with human bits.
underneath the medina, they said tourist, poor tourist.
O torture happens
no no
because not rational and here’s always vibration
under enchantment.
subsequent infusion of light at dawn. musters.
cut in the eye-patch that sheltered from demon-dark.
each night has its particular music.
state of mind is fluid.
landscapes are multi-visional.
you have eyes in the back of your many heads.
something like the train ride. talismanic.
proffered you to Fez.

language systems return to the earth
as your crown chakra opens.

Yours on the scorpion's back,

— Joe

Note the first: An aubade is a poem or piece of music appropriate to the dawn or early morning, which may also resonate with themes of early life or pre-consciousness. My hope in calling this essay an aubade is to provide a reference point to the beautiful and poignant works (in poem and song form) written by Thomas Merton, Philip LarkinDouglas Dunn & Anne Waldman, Maurice Ravel, and many more (should you be willing to explore). Here's Denise Levertov (care of Brian Buckley at Innisfree):


Note the second: A scorpion female carries her newly born young on her back until their first molt, at which point their stingers develop and they are capable of fending for themselves.