Gluing Toothpicks

A Note on Attending to Particulars in Art-Working

It is first of all our responsibility to set our intention right, as best we can, in the moment, and then to apply that intention to each encounter with the particular. By doing so the ‘overall’ intention will consistently also be right: when each present moment applies its highest intention to whatever particular confronts it.

What I mean is this. As an artist, you simply cannot manage an entire project at once. In fact, usually your experience is of moving one toothpick to the left by three centimeters, then moving it back, then doing that 1454 times until all the toothpicks seem to be in the right spot (and so long as you are alive, you can take another look…). But you simply cannot do all 1454 moves at once. Of course the mind is parallel processing many variables, deliberately and in reverie and everything in between, so ‘one at a time’ is not a limitation. But, materially speaking at least, we are creatures limited to changing one variable at a time. Even if these variables are as large as chapter outlines or the archetype-vision of what we’re doing, they are handled as variables nonetheless. Aptitude in art is perhaps the ease or flow with which multiple smaller variables can be processed and handled as one single variable. Nonetheless, as discrete vector-units of intervention, each variable lies on a continuum that includes the adjustment of toothpicks, for in art no decision is ultimately any less important than another, even though the scales and the breadth of interventions differ markedly. (By that I mean, even throwing a whole year’s journal into the bonfire, is but the adjustment of a variable.)

Yes we experience all these actions as a stream of creativity, jumping between scales and juggling all sorts of variables in non-linear fashion. But it seems to me this is a bit like how we see moving images in cinema: it’s just because our brains are processing the images slower than the image-stills are running past our eyes. Likewise, knowledge of our total endeavor convinces us that we know what we’re doing beyond the individual move— but what if we are simply entering into greater absorption in the work, through an unending series of intentional discoveries of the right move, one-time-each-time?

We have the experience of creating something as a whole event, and this is true insofar as something definitively new emerges from our hours focused on the work. But if we get to the granular analysis of what we’re doing, we realize there is no cap on the whole event: art-working is an open-ended series of discrete interventions, endlessly reworkable. At the end of each work session, we can only hope to have moved the work into closer accord with our ultimate intention. Meanwhile, the latter is only gradually revealed to us as we contemplate the work. What we are really doing dawns on us in this contemplation: we see where we can, and cannot, go further. Anyone who has had creative works resurrect themselves after years of dormancy also knows this: the purpose for things is reveals itself from the future, potentiality runs ahead of what we can handle. We live forward and understand backwards (Kierkegaard), and this is potently true in the creation of a work of art. But for the thing we are creating to eventually BE the thing we intend, we have to apply our (inevitably only partially realized) highest and most right intention now, toothpick by toothpick, across every scale.

(“Intelligence” is perhaps the ability to recognize the consequence of changing a variable on the whole, and thus the ability to integrate over the entire function, so that the variable-changing process becomes more adequate to the whole and more perfectly aligned with the ultimate intention. Intelligence touches on every aspect, from the most mental-spiritual to the most physical-practical: its goal is to see what IS and IS-not-yet about the thing, as accurately as possible, and intervene in the particulars from there. Think of Michelangelo taking away from the stone “everything that wasn’t David”…)

The trick to art, from this perspective, is to hold the transcendental intention or ultimate reason (and yes this can be Whim!) constantly in heart and mind, with every move of variables you make— and then just keep going, keep messing with things until they settle, and there is some pleasing, some tangibly fulfilling correspondence between intention and result. I admit this may be easier done in a medium like writing, where any change can be undone; sculptors and painters have a harder time, since one toothpick misglued can sour a whole set-up. But the principle in both cases is the same: keep making good moves until there are no more good moves to make. Then you’ll know that, at least for now, you’ve reached the limit of correspondence that can be attained. But this requires a vigilance over every variable, until one receives communication from the work itself that it really is finished.

Lastly and for clarity’s sake. By intention I do not mean some clear and distinct idea which we have in our mind that just gets translated into the material. On the contrary, the intention outstrips whatever we could consciously articulate about it prior to the artwork— because the articulation of the intention IS the artwork itself. For it is often the case that the artist suddenly sees in the artwork— as if for the first time!— the intention that had driven them all along. The ultimate intention takes shape, and becomes discernable, through intense and regular negotiation with particulars of every sort, at every scale. And so the best way to arrive at that ultimate intention, is to apply one’s best apprehension of it to the particulars. Consistently work from the highest intention, and the height of the work will reach you…

Feb 23, 2023

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Why Hope Never Ends

Prolonged exposure to the dusty vision-worlds of humanity’s great saints, mystics, and theologians—they go in various cultures by so many names—leaves one feeling strangely squished. What can I possibly have to add to this wealth? Here I am witness to heroic levels of sacrifice, of dedication to understanding Divinity without bounds; feats of asceticism and interpretation and teaching which startle the imagination; zealous acts of mercy and love which hardly seem possible for humans. And then witness the diverse array of these persons, how they spoke holy words in every dialect on earth, arose from every background in every land. And yet how, in broad outline, they agree! And how, in the final analysis, they are fated to converge in a practical synthesis for the future of the human spirit. For each of these efforts was animated by a similar astonishment, by love for a similar ultimate. The panoply of greatness indeed astounds the mind and what is even more astounding, for the believing person, is to realize that “God” has made all this possible—all this mind-blowing and heart-opening access to the timeless truth and reality of love.

But the sober appraiser of humanity may quickly come to another, starker analysis. How can it be that these individuals have discovered so much, while we as a human community have put their discoveries into practice so little? As a whole, we have all but neglected our sage advisors, preferring to deem their quests for the rare few, for the eccentric and wan. But for the researcher in religion—I do not mean the scholar, but one who seeks salvation—the hypothesis of rarity cannot hold up, for the claims made by all the saints have a universal bearing, they pertain to every created spirit without exception. Here, we cannot help but notice: the advice to the seeker is always the same. It is the same advice since the dawn of wisdom, whether its guise is Platonic, Vedantic, Buddhist, Islamic, Christian, or otherwise. I hold aside the competition between idioms and ideologies for now, and focus on what might be called the “heart message” of them all. On this matter, they are all agreed or at the very least convergent:

“God” or “Truth” is realized through love; through withdrawal from our outwardly-tugged passions; through a quieting and disciplining of our mind to turn inward; through a cleansing of selfish habit and destructive tendency; through a meditation on death and the nothingness of our existence; through an “indifferent” practice of self-giving and unspoken sacrifice; through empathy with suffering and the rejection of violence; through a true apprehension of Being as such and as a whole and its beauty; through total self-surrender to the Absolute Mystery which is our hope and our home, our one “entitlement” and our future.

Yes, the heart message bears repeating, and with great rejoicing I will repeat it! This message will never be dulled, it will never go quiet, it will never be stifled, for “we can do nothing against the truth, only for it” (2 Cor 13:8).

And yet the stark analysis persists: humanity, as a whole, has yet to hear this plea of the pure in heart, the God-seers (Mt 5:8). Turn by turn we have chosen to complicate everything, in service to our own small demands. Our species is a sucker for wars of ideology and superstition, battles of membership and exclusion. We are easily triggered by divergences in ways of speaking and conceptualizing the world. We are even more easily diverted from what is humble and primary for the sake of some glossy secondary concern, which we choose because it seems easier and puts us less at stake, thus asking from us less of a change.

Meanwhile, what actually is primary continues to stare us in the face, an immovable archive of Evidence of Religion–evidence of what we could be. For although, on the one hand, we know we’re still babies in britches, at the same time we cannot survey all these spiritual riches and think there is anything essential yet to discover. No, we have everything we need. God has opened his mouth in every language, to every people. We have tools and methods and testimonies literally coming out of our ears! He has shaped his glory exactly to the nature of each vessel in each time and place, so they could receive him fully as they could within their bounds. This he has done enough to prove: he will do it for anyone who is “poor in spirit” enough to consent. For we too are one of those vessels he has created for himself; and as the positivistic world of technocratic conformism daily spreads its homogenizing pall over our bored overstimulated bodies, God sees fit to open the floodgates of spiritual knowledge for us all. It only takes our choice, our resolve in seeking the ultimate, for the gates of heaven to be opened and our souls to be washed clean and elevated by the most magnificent light.

What should we do with this opportunity? What shall we say? The world is less religious than ever, but the transcendence of the human spirit will never go away or relinquish its demands, for it is the very foundation of all knowledge and freedom. We seek a fulfillment of that transcendence, for we know it must have some term, some brilliant peg to fit the empty shape within us. And there is. We have been told its many names: Bodhicitta, Brahman, Peace of Christ. The Almighty is clarity and perfection, source and end of our being, goal of every free act, terminus of all knowledge. We need only turn in silence to our own heart and bring ourselves to a halt in that silent space. Then we will find all the proof we need of the eternal power dwelling there and giving us, continually, a participation in itself. That participation, that gift, is our very self. It is who we are beyond all temporal loss. It is the moving idea of us in God, who has predestined us to share his glory. There is life, joy abundant, our link to the Most High. There is the realization of the Perfect.

And so my tongue cannot despair, no matter how much we squander and miss our chances. I cannot sorrow in humanity’s neglect any longer, for God is there. He has proved himself with the force of ten-thousand angels, and though I am but an average sinner, bumbling along like all the rest, I understand now: the only crucial factor in all this is trust in Him. Trust in the essence of yourself–beneath ego and behind attachments, where your soul is one with Him because so in love with Him–and there you will find the grace of adoration to bridge over every garbled gap. There you will know the courage of the holy ones–it is simply the will to let go of whatever is not him, whatever comes before him, whatever stands in his way. “Make straight in the desert a highway for our God!” (Is 40:3).

So we have not yet acted on our discoveries! So we have not yet made the discovery of God for ourselves! So we are daily bungling our chance at liberation, forfeiting the offer of holiness which is constantly extended!… Yes, from a certain vantage, this is the most horrible waste imaginable—we could be like angels; but from another, it all seems in keeping with the uniqueness of each soul and the mystery of the dispensation in time of God’s openings. For he has his rhythm of concealments and disclosures, his balance of taciturnity and explosion. The reason of revelations we can only comprehend from the end, after having traveled the path faithfully to culmination, while today we are always in media res, combating the hells and demons that would drag us to the pit, and there are many. For no matter how grand the spiritual catalogue may be—and would you believe that every day it becomes grander?—it is set in the logic of things that each will have its trial to undergo, its ignorance to dispel, its low behavior to correct, its atonement to profess, its repentance to weep, its courage to muster, its self-reformation to engage,  above all, its heart’s prayer to pursue through every darkness, every aridity, every jail.

No one can substitute for us in the spiritual equation, for God has made us irreplaceable in his eyes. He will never let us go. He wants us wholly, and so there are no shortcuts, and no one can make our quest for us. He will hound us until we understand this unconditional love he has for us, his impossible mercy suffering all our sin and failure, his overwhelming embrace of all we are. For he has deigned—we will never fathom this miracle—to include us in his creation. He wishes us to share in the power of his own creative act and in its glories. This points toward and culminates in what those stacks of books only dimly intimate, yet also infallibly obscurely recommend: the establishment of a mature and lasting intercommunication of spiritual persons, who are redeemed from every lie and falsehood and set free to resonate together in rapture and tranquillity at the sight of God’s insuperable divine majesty, and to do so for all eternity. They—we!—will keep moving toward this culmination through every step of our increasing dependency on him; through testimony, intercession, and worship of His Sacred Heart, which has poured itself out so we would wake up to this our destiny, which we find only in Him who exceeds all, yet is everything.

Why, then, does my hope never end? Because I have listened and heard, and behold, I, who by his grace see God, am no different from you. The invitation lies open and ready–let us take it on and take it in…

Oct 22/Nov 10, 2022

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My Verdict on Bataille

After having read Bataille extensively over decades, lived with his philosophy as an active factor in my life at various times, and written a great deal about him–Sovereign Disregard (2020), Evil Compassion (2017), General Energy (2015), Midnight Strike (2014), Intimate Dark (2013), Death, Resurrected (2012)–I share here a brief “verdict.”

The core of Bataille’s philosophy is insubordination. The virtue he extolled was uselessness–useless expenditure, dépense inutile. To his mind, man was only “free” when his action had no “goal” or “end” to it–except to assert a freedom-from which dissolves in sovereign laughter, for it “cancels” out everything, renders the universe an absence. Bataille sought to keep thought alive at that sovereign or comic moment when thought reaches its end and only “NOTHING” is there.

Henri De Lubac says that monism is the temptation of all mysticism, and I believe Bataille fell for it. He saw the “separate self” to be a lie, a product of social labor. The self that has past, present, future, he argued, is subordinate to maintaining its own being. Survival inherently alienates us, for it enslaves us to our own identity and makes us work to preserve it in time. Bataille wanted, instead, for the self to risk itself to death. By death the separate self is ripped outside and beyond itself. It is restored to what he called “continuity of Being” (which, philosophically, proves interchangeable with “NOTHING,” the monist trap: emptiness and fullness oscillate at the edge of possible and actual).

But Bataille wanted more than an Eastern-style dissolution of self. He was not content with meditation or self-inquiry (vichara), a safe and peaceable withdraw from risk. He believed about the opposite: it is through torture, sex, ecstasy, violence, poetry, that we communicate most intensely with the “continuity of Being.” His is still working on this in his late text, “Method of Meditation” collected in The Unfinished Science of Non-Knowledge. He wanted to restore us to continuity through experiences of discontinuity, rupture, risk, exposure, chance.

I believe Bataille was fascinated by the function of suffering (he called it “laceration”) in our approach to the divine. For him the Divine is intense communication with the borderless/boundless All–of such an intensity that the boundaries of the isolated being are torn beyond reconstitution (though the “decline” from the “summit” is inevitable, much to Bataille’s annoyance; see On Nietzsche). “Being is communication,” he thought, and communication never leaves its participants whole and intact. It is in this “laceration” that he places sin, and valorizes it for its violation of individual integrity (as well as its insubordinate, morality-overturning quality). Thus Bataille was unable to think an “unwanted” laceration or theorize communication of a caring type, and so he got stuck with a very lonely, ‘no one understands me’ sort of inquiry. It is Bataille’s void-self against an uncomprehending and opaque world–a darkness into which he jumps for his singular salvation. Likewise, his focus on the vital aspect of “mystical” pleasure blinded him to its stabler, less violent forms. This is all in line with the “fascination with death” in French thinking at the time (see Betty Rojtman’s work by that title).

In Indian terms, I believe Bataille may have realized the cosmic Self (Atman), but he did so at the level of the pranamaya-kosha, the force/energy body or “vital sheath.” I believe this a plausible cause for his love-hate relationship with discursive thought, systematic thinking, and language in general. In the Indian system, above the pranamya-kosha is the manomaya-kosha, the “mind sheath.” As he aged, he warmed to rational analysis, if only because he wanted his ideas to be preserved, well-presented and understood; but he never lost his drive to descend lower. He idealized the animal’s being like water in water (Theory of Religion) similar to how he idealized the juvenile in literature (Literature and Evil).

In Western terms, Bataille lacked an adequate meditation on the Cross. He was never able to incorporate Christ into his thought, and I do not recall any direct confrontation with Jesus himself. He only wrestled with forms of Christianity he detested (a conversation with Fr Marechal is typical: Bataille is not interested in dialogue but in stressing his contrary definition of terms), or those that leaned in the direction of “mystic excess.” He had a strong taste for the dramatic (witness the tone of the whole Summa Atheologica), and was easily taken in by ecstatic supports. He had a very butchered idea of God, thinking that God “had” to maintain the universe and was thus not free to not maintain it (hence God is subordinate to his own creation, “not allowed to sin,” as Nietzsche put it). All this betrays an underlying assumption that it is better to take than to give; and that in the cosmic scheme it is one’s own suffering that matters most (opposite to Christ, who dies for his friend’s sake). When The Accursed Share vol. III ends with the alternative: Nietzsche or Communism–and Bataille chooses Nietzsche simply because the communist has to give up his sovereignty for the sake of the party–what is so striking (and naive) is his exclusion of Christ as an option. This is doubly strange as in that work he is obsessed with death, freedom, eternity, and Kingship.

Bataille remains within an apathetic and Sadean paradigm. He is unable to commit to worldly improvement, yet instead he finds a ‘heavenly abyss’ he called “going to the limits of the possible” or “humanity is divine when experiencing its limits”—all of which let down and return to the starting point: a void in a void seeking to void itself. Bataille should be situated in a line of ‘anti-Christs’ who sought to redefine being by lawlessness—or at least taught that man, to break his fetters, must say No to actuality and necessity of every sort, accepting only the lacerating leap beyond whatever is–even if it means man’s annihilation. (As a representative of all that’s off with modern voluntarism and possibilism, few bring home the lesson better.)

Had Bataille encountered Christ, he might have come to understand that suffering out of obedience is freer than suffering for liberation; and that “mystical experience” points not to an impersonal One-Moment that negates personhood (monism), but to a Person who creates and loves persons, who invites us to be divinized in and by God’s eternity, for the salvation of all mankind (collaboration). The positive aspects of Bataille’s work–poetic communication, loyalty to the other’s consciousness, witness to the “miracle of the impossible” as provoking both joy and tears–might have taken on a whole new coloring, had he accepted his priestly vocation. To my mind, Bataille leaves us with a lesson:

It is futile and redundant to try to dissolve yourself by taking your self as your own ground, for you will never overtake the contradiction in a stance you hate. No amount of sin or disruption or insubordination will ever win the war within the soul, because sin annihilates the soul’s true image and replaces it, over and over again, with yet more devastated imagery. Accept instead to take your ground in God, even if you do not yet comprehend the image he will make of you. The name you are to carry is his decision, not that of your passion or your intelligence. Obedient to God, you will find your way to the Mystery you craved from the beginning–an infinity without abyssal nothingness, a joy without any shade of violation, pride, or possessiveness (unending mutiny). God will show himself to you there where you take his life to be the only fullness. There you will be carried away, through and beyond sadness, in a way the self could never have imagined.

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