Willy Loman, Mary Oliver and the real story of joy

I’ve been collecting notes to do an essay on the theme of suffering in art.

For it, I had the scene of Jesus’ entombment painted by that fastidious German master of the grotesque, Matthias Grunewald. I had Frida Kahlo’s self-portrait as a leaping stag, pierced by a dozen arrows. I had a Modigliani titled, quite plainly, “A Suffering Nude.”

I was going to write about how I read these, the mutilated body of the Son of God, self-conception of the wounded artist, interior pain made visible, etc.

I might still write that essay, but it’s hard. It’s hard to contemplate suffering rendered unto art when my heart feels so raw.

Nowadays, my energy field feels porous, like my empath tendencies are magnified to the utmost. Today, on my way to do some Christmas shopping, I saw the poster for a production of Death of a Salesman (in Korean) on a train platform and felt overwhelmed to the point of tears.

 

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Looking at this photo, snapped on my iPhone, I am near the point of tears once again. Goddamnit.

The Korean Willy Loman’s funereal, ill-fitting black suit hangs off his slouched shoulders, sapped of pride or energy.

His gaze is both confused and resigned. The deep creases and the shadows on his weary face mirror the dramatic, blurry chiaroscuro of the background. Others pass him by in a hurry like indifferent ghosts, busily headed everywhere and nowhere. I almost hear that whooshing of the trains, muffled announcements, the sound of people looking away from each other.

My heart aches for the midcentury white American that Arthur Miller’s original Salesman was, and it aches for his incarnation nearly 70 years later on a different hemisphere.

I am not a salesman, nor am I any kind of a failed patriarch, but I am a student of alienation. And deep alienation has followed us Koreans in our pursuit of wealth and happiness. It is the shadow of the American dream, which begat the post-war Korean dream.

I wondered if Willy Loman is Don Quixote’s grimmer descendent — both succumbed to fantasy and death as a response to the absurdity of life, but the former is rendered without much humorous irony.

Is it that modernity has sapped us of the will to irony (let’s say, der Wille zur Ironie, in place of der Wille zur Macht)?

I had to turn away. I cannot go and see this place. Nor do I feel hardy enough to write that essay on suffering in paintings.

Nowadays, I see the darkness and sharp-edged inside me, too easily mirrored without.

Reading the news, both American and Korean, feels surreal. I doubt I have to do much explaining about the surreal despair of observing the Orange One Who Shall Not Be Named occupying the place he’d just been elected to occupy. In Korea, though, the president is embroiled in an impeachment scandal that is rocking our sense of civic solidity to the core.

Anger, suspicion and hopelessness abound. People’s emotional wounds are in the air and swayed by the wind, raining on creation like allergenic pollen at springtime.

At times like this, I have taken to turning to Mary Oliver.

I recently took a wonderful writing course (which actually is code for mind-body-spirit integration course) with Nadia Colburn. The course, Align Your Story, is a quiet, shimmering and softening invitation to carve the space out of our busy-busy lives for creative contemplation. It asks us to lean into wholeness as the principal way of becoming artists, which is an integral truth I now fight to keep in my heart all of my days.

(If the course sounds completely amazing, it is! And I cannot recommend it more.)

In it, there is a lovely module focused on the idea of Joy, which I find myself returning to time and time again.

Wouldn’t you agree with me that it is somehow so much more challenging, disruptive and subversive to study joy in the current environs than rage and despair?

Hardly a day goes by when I am not reminded of Yeats’ great poem, The Second Coming, the eerily, depressingly ever-relevant, muscular indictment of human folly. Is the engagement with joy somehow a negation of all the legitimate and justifiable anger and disbelief we feel at the state of the world?

Is engagement with joy a betrayal of those who have been profoundly wronged and mutilated — in our own hearts, in our homelands, far away in Aleppo?

Is engagement with joy more puerile than the fastidious study of sadness? Does it require less courage?

Nadia has reminded me to study who, to me, is the Poet of Holy Joy — Mary Oliver. I picked up my beloved copy of Why I wake Early and found myself totally arrested by the following poem. (Bold is mine.)

 

 

Breakage
by Mary Oliver
I go down to the edge of the sea.
How everything shines in the morning light!
The cusp of the whelk,
the broken cupboard of the clam,
the opened, blue mussels,
moon snails, pale pink and barnacle scarred—
and nothing at all whole or shut, but tattered, split,
dropped by the gulls onto the gray rocks and all the moisture gone.
It’s like a schoolhouse
of little words,
thousands of words.
First you figure out what each one means by itself,
the jingle, the periwinkle, the scallop
       full of moonlight.
Then you begin, slowly, to read the whole story.
dock

Poems like this make me feel that Oliver was such a consummate artist of Joy. (And how joyful her language is to read, her short-syllabled American English, radiant with the acuity of love.)

Oliver’s eyes never look away from anything. This is a quality I most admire about her: her absolute insistence on looking at everything unflinchingly, including the scarredness, including the death and decay, and also no less curiously at that which is beautiful, blessed. There is a certain elegant discipline to this way of being and seeing.

You learn from Oliver that joy isn’t a state of “la-la-la”.

Joy is not a choice toward childish insouciance, effervescent and unweighted buoyance, or denial of the hard what-is.

Instead, Joy is the story of wholeness. Joy is the story of seeing that everything is broken and also not ugly; tattered but also shone on by the sun. Joy is salty.

Joy is the story of patience, of taking the time and the breath to not stop at each little word, but to weave together the many thousands of words, of knowings.

Joy is a kind of sober decision to wait to find out. Joy is the story of there is more, and that is always true.

And this is the best news of all. It means joy is possible — yes, even now, especially now.

 

Seurat and Signac: Where does the pointilist lens aim?

(I keep hearing people don’t care about high art. I don’t really buy that. I do think that art education is shit. If visual literacy is taught better, I believe firmly that anyone with a pair of eyes will find much to care about. So, every time I write about high art, I will try to sum up my highly subjective and non-professional opinion of why another layperson should care.)

Why you should care:  Because 19th century artists foresaw pixels and painted, essentially, pixellation. And that’s cool. And with this idea of expressing color through little dots, they captured the natural light of beautiful outdoors as well as intimate, very indoors-y settings of ordinary women at work. These questions of “What do you find interesting to see? What do you find interesting to reproduce for others to see?” are exciting because they encourage us to see familiar things differently. 

 

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I first learned about La Grande Jatte when I took an art history course during my semester abroad in Bologna. I forgot nearly everything else I learned in the course, but remember how much I was struck by this painting. I love the scale of the work (2.08 m x 3.08 m), though I’ve never seen it; the masterpiece by Georges Seurat lives in Chicago.

Notice the postures of the people. Notice their motionless profiles. It is said that Seurat was inspired by Egyptian and Greek art; one finds the rigidity and geometric precision that they have in common. The people enjoying a leisurely day at a public park mostly look water-ward, looking placid, almost bored. I find this so interesting, given that it is juxtaposed by the cheeky, frolicking movement of the animals (two puppies and… a monkey????) in the foreground. I think the painting would have carried a very different energy without the animals.

Also, pointilism is cool and feels like a precursor to this age of EVERYTHING IS PIXELLATED.

Seurat contrasted miniature dots or small brushstrokes of colors that when unified optically in the human eye were perceived as a single shade or hue. He believed that this form of painting, called divisionism at the time but now known as pointillism, would make the colors more brilliant and powerful than standard brushstrokes.

My head hurts to think about the two years of painstaking, scientifically-minded mental and physical labor that went into constructing these colors. Seurat took great pride in the objectivist accomplishment, but there is much more to appreciate in this painting than the pointilist technique and mastery of color theory.

The overall warm and luminous quality of the painting comes from the distribution of sunlight; the entire front third of the canvas is in a shadow, which means that the viewer is looking out from the perspective of being under a shadow, onto brightly lit palette of — it must be either Spring or Summer. The way the shadow is cast, the movement of the sun in a leisurely aftedownload-2rnoon is made implicit, the vanishing promise of day. I notice also the almost sprayed-on, dreamy quality of the tree leaves against the blue sky on the top left corner of the painting. The water shimmers and sparkles, reflecting trees, boat, people.

When you examine a pointilist work closely, all you see is dots. It is slightly dizzy-making. But once you step away, you see a cohesive, brilliant color. Pointilist work shares something with life that way; the way stepping away from something allows us to see something more clearly.

Though, the zoom-in version could be a stand-alone painting, and its mosaic-like abstraction very modern.

 

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This is quite a different example of pointilism, The Milliner by Paul Signac. 

Here, a milliner dropped her shears and is bending down to pick it up. I immediately fell in love with this painting because, aside from just thinking that the idea of a milliner is so romantic, I love when paintings capture really random moments, which the protagonist might almost be embarrassed by.

It feels intentionally voyeuristic, like peaking into someone else’s private moment. In this case, it is not the finished, beautiful hats we are interested in, but what goes into the sausage, so to speak. The intimacy is fun.

 

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There are materials (thread, and… scraps of fabric? felt? I don’t even know) thoughtlessly strewn about on the working table and on the floor, as it so happens when crafts(wo)men are busy at work. We see the daring red of the hat, to which our eyes are naturally drawn, contrasted against the sober blues, browns and blacks elsewhere. The red hat which will presumably be sold to a woman of a different social station than those in the painting; what a story it tells.

If in La Grande Jatte, same technique was used to capture the dynamic of light in open air, camera zooming out, here, we zoom into a somewhat claustrophobic setting indoors.

I love that Paul Signac thought this mundane scene worthy of the technical and effortful rigor of the pointilist project. I love what he was able to achieve with the textures of:

  • the wallpaper
  • the woven tablecloth
  • the woman’s tightly coiled bun and the curls cascading downward, the black hair reflecting the light with strands of blue sheen
  • the wooden floor.

 

 

 

 


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Tricolor Mary: Encountering 3 Faces of the Divine Feminine

Mary in White

I always felt curiously distant from the figure of Mary. I always sensed that there is so much there and yet, I could never connect to it emotionally.

The foil to Eve, vessel of Love, suffering mother. I wanted to love her, I wanted to feel her, I wanted to feel drawn to the mystery of Marian devotion. But I felt alienated by the vision of the feminine that she seemed to project: the pure, immaculate, virginal, submissive, obedient, quietly suffering.

Most days, I feel like the opposite of every single one of those qualities. 

It's exactly the kind of feminine archetype I don't really relate to -- the kind of person about whom people say, "oh, she's really nice" as if yielding compliance and non-offensiveness are her primary attributes. The kind of woman who fades into the background, whose worth lies only in her utility to the patriarchal narrative.

Will Mary, with the white halo on her head, be accepting of my chaos, my non-virginity, my rejection of Victorian purity, my failure to suffer quietly (I like to kick and scream)? Am I not more a daughter of Eve, the one who says "yes" to darkness and temptation? 

If so, how can I make peace with Mary, let alone love her? How can I fully reconcile with an otherwise masculine-dominated vision of Christianity?

Earlier, I was reading a Camille Paglia interview, in which she contrasted the pagan floridness of Mediterranean Catholicism with the country club-politeness and blandness of what is seen in a lot of churches nowadays. Then it clicked with me.

Through most of the images I'd seen in my life, I only encountered "country club" versions of Mary -- squeaky-clean, wholesome, Doris Day. Nothing dark or mysterious or dangerous about her. No edge, no drama, no intrigue.

We form relationships with symbols, realms of the subconscious and the spiritual, through images. I have been sorely deprived of interesting images of Mary

Then I set out to explore, looking at very different visual representations of Mary. Indeed, artists and poets throughout the ages have imagined her in strikingly diverse ways. Through these images, we can reconsider our own ideas of womanhood, weaving together different threads of Jungian symbols. 

This is why we have art, yes? So that we can re-order what we know and how we know it through active seeing. (And I'd be remiss not to mention, if you're interested in active seeing, check out the book I recently reviewed for the National Book Review.)

Now, let's get to it.

1. Mary in White

Mary in White

This is very near the only image of Mary I grew up with. I had a small statuette of her in my room growing up, and saw aesthetically similar statues in the churches I grew up in in Korea and suburban California. 

Mary has pale skin, blandly pretty features, clad in flowy, fluid lines of white and sky blue. For our purposes, let's call her the White Mary.

I'll come out and say it, because I think this is what Paglia was alluding to: she's the Episcopalian country club Mary and does absolutely nothing for me. Very serviceable, polite, nice. She is kind and inviting without edges. Beautiful without any hint of threatening sexuality. She is stripped of any hint of Mediterranean pageantry; she's been "protestant-ized". 

Oh, of course, there's the serpent she is crushing under her foot. The serpent that lured Eve, the precursor to Original Sin. The snake under the foot always grossed me out when I was a child, but only slightly, because it's so easy to miss! You can barely see it. In these statuettes, the snakes are thin, anemic, rarely truly menacing. They're the most toothless representations of the Evil that she is symbolically crushing. 

She can overcome only an already weak and limp enemy. This is barely the tough, scrappy young woman who got off a donkey in a faraway land and gave birth in a dirty manger. This is not the mater dolorosa who stood by her bleeding, slowly dying son. 

If this country club Mary saw anything like that, she might politely turn away, ask for her smelling salts, and mutter something like, "oh, goodness, how unseemly!" 

 

 

2. Chapel of Grace, Black Madonna, Einsiedeln Abbey 

Chapel of Grace, Black Madonna, Einsiedeln Abbey

Now we're talking. Behold Schwartzmuttergottes (Black Mother of God).

She is the Black Madonna of Einsiedeln, said to be 500-600 years old, and she lives in Switzerland. 

This is not the same Mary as above. Carved of wood and painted a gleaming black, she is resplendently clad in stiff, imposing regal attire. There is none of the gentle, pastel-colored fluidity of Country Club Mary's dress. She wields a majestic scepter, and golden rods of light and unfurling waves of cloud shoot out and explode from behind her. The curves and lines here look Greco-Roman to me, and carry the exuberant energy of that ancient, pagan era.

Her facial features are slightly harder to discern, but we can see enough to say that she isn't exactly in a "my dear, why don't you come over for a nice cup of tea and crumpets?" kind of a mood. She is queenly, slightly forboding, the smooth darkness of her face hard and pearl-like. Her blackness harkens to a kind of pre-cosmic source-energy.

Gazing upon the Black Madonna, we think of the other Indo-European mirror, the Hindu goddess Kali, the destroyer of evil forces, whose name is synonymous with the color black. 

 

3. Viridissima Virga (A Green Mary)

Viridissima Virga

We have here not a picture, but a poem, which was written for a chant.

O Viridissima Virga (O Greenest Rod)

O branch of freshest green,
O hail! Within the windy gusts of saints
upon a quest you swayed and sprouted forth.

When it was time, you blossomed in your boughs—
“Hail, hail!” you heard, for in you seeped the sunlight’s warmth
like balsam’s sweet perfume.

For in you bloomed
so beautiful a flow’r, whose fragrance wakened
all the spices from their dried-out stupor.

They all appeared in full viridity.

Then rained the heavens dew upon the grass
and all the earth was cheered,
for from her womb she brought forth fruit
and for the birds up in the sky
have nests in her.

Then was prepared that food for humankind,
the greatest joy of feasts!
O Virgin sweet, in you can ne’er fail any joy.

All this Eve chose to scorn.

But now, let praise ring forth unto the Highest!

(Latin original)

Viridissima Virga

Look here, where it gets really interesting. In this song, composed by Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), witchy polymath and Doctor of the Church, Mary is not white, not black, but freaking green. Okay?

Hildegard was an accomplished botanist and natural historian. She didn't quite get the ascetic early Christian memo about turning one's eye away from the physical world in pursuit of the heavenly kingdom. No, she has her sights fixed on the sensorily-rich fertility principle, imagining Mary as a kind of Aphrodite. 

I love this fulsome, pagan bounty of nature in this poem. Mary "seeped the sunlight's warmth / like balsam's sweet perfume." A flower bloomed in her, waking the "spices" that appear in "full viridity". Worship of Mary is a celebration, a softening into the cycle of nature, a vibrant catalogue of color and movement.

By the way (this is the kind of stuff that makes me explode with nerdy delight), I love the punny potential of the title, 'viridissima virga'.

'Virga' means 'stem', or 'rod' (teeheehee, 'rod' -- I am so twelve years old forever), but of course it is a single letter away from 'virgo', meaning 'virgin'. (Ohhhhhh!) 'Viridissima' is a fancy Latin word for 'very green', but change one letter again and we have 'virilissima', which means, well, 'very virile'.

So much that is suggestive and sexy in this poem: branch that "swayed and sprouted forth"; heavens raining "dew upon the grass," and "from her womb she brought forth fruit." 

Nope, there is none of the solemn meekness of a scriptural Mary. Instead, the Mother of God is the luxuriant queen of generativity, the creative center of a blooming, exultant earthly garden. (Aha, garden! Like the one once inhabited by Eve. So we circle back to Genesis.) 

 

 

 

THE NATIONAL BOOK REVIEW: “How to See,” David Salle

Check out my review of David Salle’s How to See on the National Book Review.

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Why paying for art is an investment in yourself

My friend Paula Schramm is a full-time human, an celebratory label I attach to those who are more awake to life than the average bear. I have learned many things from her: how to be a pilgrim, how to pink your hair, how to be vulnerable and powerful at once. (Yes, Paula, I like to alliterate.) One of the most life-altering things I learned from her is the value of paying for things you like.

When I find an artist I like, I mostly admire their work online. I follow them on Facebook or Pinterest or whatever. Paula actually buys a giant painting from them and hangs it on her wall. If we both follow a spiritual teacher, I read their work and tweet about it. Paula buys their merchandise and puts it on her table, next to her well-loved pens and notebooks. They sit in her flat, radiating energy and blessing the air.

It’s not that Paula has all this cash to burn and I don’t. Paula likes to pay to have things she values take up physical space in her life. To her, voting with your dollar (or, strictly speaking in this case, her euro) goes beyond politics; it goes to the realm of art and ideas. With her money, she votes for beauty and presence and wakefulness.

What I have come to understand is that, supporting an artist I love, paying for something that nourishes you, changes you. It really does so much more for you than whoever that money went to.

An artist serves as the vessel of their art-ideal, and when you support the artist, you join them in service. You feel that you have invested in the thing that they stand for; what you get back in return almost feels like a transference of the qualities you admire back to yourself. By paying materially for art, you officially and irrefutably ally yourself yourself with the cause of your artist, whether it is beauty, wonder, healing, provocation, humor, clairvoyance or sublimation. The cause also becomes yours.

 


Get Missives from Our Lady of Perpetual Fuck Yeah (i.e. the patron saint of this website)! Every two weeks, I’ll email you a benediction, links to new posts and probably appraisals of sex scenes in whatever books I’m reading.


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