Wednesday, August 19, 2009

What lies beneath?

This morning I was reading some letters Thomas Merton had written to one of his Superiors, who was apparently not appreciative of his work.

He is, in those letters, by turns submissive and defensive, occasionally bitter and sarcastic, and even as he is conducting the dialog he is continuing to write. At one point, in what appears to be a fit of pique, he writes a piece called "A Signed Confession of Crimes against the State" in which he says:

"I confess that I am sitting under a pine tree doing absolutely nothing. I have done nothing for one hour and firmly intend to continue to do nothing for an indefinite period. I have taken my shoes off. I confess that I have been listening to a mockingbird. Yes, I admit that it is a mockingbird. I hear him singing in those cedars, and I am very sorry. It is probably my fault. He is singing again. This kind of thing goes on all the time. Wherever I am, I find myself the center of reactionary plots like this one.

...The sun? Yes, it is shining.. I see it shine. I am in full agreement with the sunshine. I confess that I have been in sympathy all along with the sun shining, and have not paused for two seconds to consider that it shines on account of the state. I am shattered by the realization that I have never attributed the sunshine to its true cause, namely the state. Clearly I am not worthy to exist another minute."

There is something rather childish and petulant about this statement, and at the same time several points are being made. Clearly some things -- like the sun and the birds -- are beyond the control of institutions. And, equally clearly, if you are looking -- like McCarthy, during his era -- for subversive acts, almost anything, however innocent, will appear to be a subversive act. And, sadly, when you are under constant criticism simply for existing, even the simplest pleasures will have a bitter taste to them.

So much of what we experience is about perception; about the mood we're in at the time, about what is happening elsewhere in our lives, about what we have eaten or drunk -- how can we ever accurately comprehend truth when it is so colored by what we carry with us into the picture?

...Which is one reason I have begun to love playing with these really simple, often almost monochromatic images, looking for the colors and perceptions that lie beneath the grays and beiges. This one -- of the edge of a metal building reflected in a window in East Portland -- is unaltered except for its color. And I didn't add color, paint in any new colors, I just bumped up the saturation to reveal the colors that lay beneath the gray and beige; colors I could sense were there, but which were not immediately obvious to the naked eye.

I'd like to believe that spirit and joy and love are like color: always present, if not detectable; lying always just beneath the surface of even the simplest, most ordinary experiences. But I also know that sometimes what looks like spirit may actually be very gray and empty underneath; that sometimes institutions and practices which promise or advertise spirit and joy and love at the surface level may simply mask an underlying and enervating grayness. It is the role of the artist and contemplative to keep drilling down to the underlying truth; whichever it may be.


Anonymous said...

I'm all caught up now, feels like I'm back on track. Feels good.

I love this image, the colors, the shapes...interests me.

Diane Walker said...

Yay; glad you're back. I'm sorry these last few posts have been difficult. I can't promise I'm out of the woods yet, but thanks for staying with them. I do appreciate your presence on the journey -- and love watching your design wall!