Posts Tagged ‘eckhart tolle’

Villains

July 16, 2014

Here’s a mental experiment: look at whatever you have decided “constitutes evil” in more concrete instances as organic in the sense of self-sustaining and viable, but possibly still self-limiting in its appetites. Picture it as an attitude in the physicality of a stage villain, a breathing pattern and a gestural sensibility for violence that is reactive but not driven from without, an unease with one’s environment that’s impassive but untenable, a disturbing force that is autonomous and mortal.

Physicality and critical thinking go hand in hand – to let your body speak to you in metaphor about things that would seem more intellectual and are normally encountered in abstraction is a rare skill. Excellent stage combat in actors conveys this connectivity, and has dramatic intelligence, not just as an expression of violence but also a display of subtlety and pause. Heath Ledger’s performances were deeply informed by his study of modern dance, and profoundly expressive in gesture and poise.

There is an animalistic simplicity to stage villains – they struggle against all odds to survive the fragile worlds that they disrupt.

Kipling wrote in The Bull That Thought, that in the bull-ring he “raged enormously; he feigned defeat; he despaired in statuesque abandon, and thence flashed into fresh paroxysms of wrath – but always with the detachment of the true artist who knows that he is but the vessel of an emotion whence others, not he, must drink.”

They are performative caricatures of evil, more afraid of inconsequence than death. Death as a backing for mirrors is a sterile aesthetic theory, the apocalypse genre and its “human shadows bright as glass” is too morbid. Shadow catching frightens us into awe. The embodied image of a victim, or a villain, stirs mimetic imaginative forces in the audience – identification, sublimation, catharsis. Resistance to the final act in which “everyone who is marked for death, dies.” The rich vibrations of denial in the heart.

Fear is an experience of particular interest to Christian Bale, multidimensional and subversive. One can crouch in fear the better to revel in an intertwined discovery of courage, or smile in fear over an intellectually overwhelming irony, step towards fear in defiance of intimidation, or stumble in abject fear of indifferent consequence.

The scene in Alexander at night when he genuflects in honor of Fear highlights the importance of accepting vulnerability, respecting its capacity to overwhelm other forces, and studying the means to exploit its effect on oneself and others. Respect for fear is where courage and self-knowledge knit together. A villain is practiced in deploying fear, and a villain’s imposture is a consequence of living submersed in it.

Nikki_WTF

My favorite fandom is one in which ideas like fear and compassion loom over the plot like engines of disaster and little truths about the human condition ambush the characters like carnival masks in a Boschian dream.

The emotional logic of magic in The Legend of the Seeker gives rise to archetypal battles rather than convincing illusions, in a world of relationships that don’t have a legitimating context in a world without magic, thrusting into relief deep schisms in the stilted psychology of symbolic expressionism, foregrounding characters whose attributes are larger than life and whose lived experience is epic in scale.

Character moments sometimes register like an idea fixé held in place, a subtle mask contoured by the multidimensional pressures of cognitive dissonance against character and plot, symbolic action and empirical ghost. The articulate tensing of intrinsic freedom against psychosocial constraint.

tiepolo_excerpt1

Quoting Susan Sontag on dissonance and ethical experience:

“The incomparable early 20th century Portuguese poet and prose writer, Fernando Pessoa, wrote in his prose summum, The Book of Disquiet:

“I’ve discovered that I’m always attentive to, and always thinking about two things at the same time. I suppose everyone is a bit like that…. In my case the two realities that hold my attention are equally vivid. This is what constitutes my originality. This, perhaps, is what constitutes my tragedy, and what makes it comic.”

Yes, everyone is a bit like that, but the awareness of the doubleness of thinking is an uncomfortable position, very uncomfortable if held for long. It seems normal for people to reduce the complexity of what they are feeling and thinking and to close down the awareness of what lies outside their immediate experience.

Is this refusal of an extended awareness, which takes in more than is happening right now, right here, not at the heart of our ever-confused awareness of human evil and of the immense capacity of human beings to commit evil? Because there are, incontestably, zones of experience that are not distressing, which give joy, it remains a puzzle that there is so much misery and wickedness.”

On the suffering of others, she gives the example of an earthquake: “Lisbon lies in ruins,” Voltaire wrote, “and here in Paris we dance.”

tiepolo_excerpt2

Just as I wondered why Eckhart Tolle is more interested in enjoying the “now” without noticing his perspective on it is limited by the “here” Sontag asks, “Is it not part of the fundamental structure of experience that “now” refers to both “here” and “there”? … Perhaps it is our perennial fate to be surprised by the simultaneity of events, by the sheer extension of the world in time and space. That we are here, prosperous, safe, unlikely to go to bed hungry or be blown to pieces this evening, while elsewhere in the world, right now in Grozny, in Najaf, in the Sudan, in the Congo, in Gaza, in the favelas of Rio….

“To be a traveler – and novelists are often travelers – is to be constantly reminded of the simultaneity of what is going on in the world, your world and the very different world you have visited and from which you have returned home.”

Somewhere in the world, someone is warming to battle, saying, like Shakespeare in Coriolanus:

“Let me have a war, say I: It exceeds peace as far as day
Does night; it’s spritely, waking, audible, full of vent.
Peace is a very apoplexy, lethargy, mull’d, deaf, sleepy,
Insensible; a getter of more bastard children than war is a
Destroyer of men.”

Someone is stoking the appetites for violence with the rhetoric of victim-blaming and its subliminal narrative’s naive expressions of imposture, invoking free rider social anxiety, estrangement, latent attitudes towards shirking, instinctive exclusionary threat displays and the language of non-exclusionary vulgarity in posturing. Someone is reframing the rictus of a fear grimace as a mask of rage, calling in debts, condemning a deferred presumption of decency, channeling actual bystander attitudes towards other bystanders and reciprocity, harnessing the nameless confusion of social animals into the traces of war.

black-face_for_carnival

Someone is unleashing and amplifying the cruelty of micro-aggressions practiced in the informal policing of the frontiers of justice, tacit reminders of inequality given not without satisfaction, even if the aggressive nature of the behavior is unacknowledged out of social pressure to keep the peace.

Cruelty is easy to disown. At the frontiers of justice, passive gatekeepers without keys appear to be toying with the alternatives (assist or obstruct passage) every time they acknowledge someone on the other side. They are merely posturing to maintain position on the better end of the social contract’s Pareto optimal sum of political fair-mindedness.

Gloating, posturing, fear, uncertainty, depravity and imposture are a potential blemish on stardom, and the grimace is underrepresented in film apart from the stock villain. Such a villain is a favorite in contemporary criticism of the Iliad, in the very modern Thersites, tragically out of step with the epic love fantasies and military ethics of his time.

A holistic concept map of his foibles would link ugliness and thwarted aggression, soothing and patronizing gestures, imposture and irony, disgust and desire, initiating violence and defending self-efficacy, miscommunication and indifference to strangers, the attention economy and stop-go posturing, phrasebook conversation as the formulaic bent of high diction and indirection as an ambivalent or inattentive vagueness.

I would use the concepts of cognitive bias, working memory, compartmentalizing and strain on the attention economy to develop an abstract theory of ugliness fit to explain the antithesis of a charismatic hero. Errata, grudges, divided loyalties and excessive interests belie a villain’s imperfectible nature, making his virtues forgettable and his failures decisive. He will come to want revenge for being born.

Hooded_Mord_sith

The foibles of the villains in The Legend of the Seeker have overtones of BDSM sexual fantasy, ritualized and sardonic. Porn is a garish metaphor for the strained idea of inter-subjectivity in contemporary identity politics. The boundaries issues, the mutuality deficits, the resentment masking (forced irony as sublimated hatred), all devolve into rote penetrative violence governed by reactive interpersonal dynamics (push and push back w/o pull, ‘telling’ instead of using ‘indirection’, rape scripts instead of seduction). BDSM porn may be richer in symbolic language and relational innuendo, but is still preoccupied with power and its confrontation.

If mainstream film is governed by a market that parallels that for porn, the horror genre is the most emblematic of vulgarity. The banalization of violent pornography in horror films humanizes female protagonists with contemporary plots that take the objectified heroine off her pedestal and establish “she’s no victim, but that is distress.” The distress is guaranteed, exaggerated, inane. Horror films elicit, by repetition and predictability, a matter-of-fact sort of stage feeling about the universal experience of unrelenting vulnerability to interpersonal violence.

In 1944, Orwell wrote a column about what he called “a very dangerous fallacy, now very widespread in the countries where totalitarianism has not established itself. … The fallacy is to believe that under a dictatorial government you can be free inside …. The greatest mistake is to imagine that the human being is an autonomous individual. The secret freedom which you can supposedly enjoy under a despotic government is nonsense, because your thoughts are never entirely your own. Philosophers, writers, artists, even scientists, not only need encouragement and an audience, they need constant stimulation from other people .. Take away freedom of speech, and the creative faculties dry up.”

The subversive energies of violent pornography transgress the vulgar politics of Pareto stability and the impassive obscure with splashy narratives of overpowering force and indiscriminate disruption.

rebreaking_cara

Bertrand Russell speculated that there might be innocent pastimes that could restore the “zest” to indolent headhunters in conquered corners of the Amazon who had been forbidden their favorite sport and grown degenerate in the lassitude of postcolonial angst. Maybe not; the glory they missed had not been and could never be apolitical, without being trivialized.

Pornographic and Hollywood villainy is neither apolitical nor uncensored, a sphere for indulging the senses that embodies the political and dramatizes the radical within the permissive bounds of the trivial, a call of the wild “for entertainment only.” Rousing, provocative, peculiar, destructive, the rise of a villain worth contending with is a spectacle that evinces appetites outstripping the world’s patience in all of us. For the stage villain is the evil genius we choose to identify with, the one who can only be outdone in our estimation by a hero of unusual charisma and supernatural prowess.

“The winds awaken, the leaves whirl round,
Our cheeks are pale, our hair is unbound,
Our breasts are heaving our eyes are agleam,
Our arms are waving our lips are apart;
And if any gaze on our rushing band,
We come between him and the deed of his hand,”

– Yeats, The Hosting of the Sidhe

Such a villain is not defeated – he is undone. He must hide in his strengths the seed of their own destruction, overreach in the fatal direction, foresee his own doom and collapse into nihilism, succumb to a performative defiance of what the world holds possible.

“The trouble with reality is that it anticipates the hypotheses that deny it.” These are the same expectations that explain why “not only does reality offer no resistance to those who denounce it, but it escapes those who take its side. It may be a way to take revenge on those who claim to believe in it in order to transform it: sending the zealots back to their own desire. In the end, it might be more of a sphinx than a dog.” Baudrillard again.

Awareness and the active mind

October 9, 2012

It is not uncommon or dull to argue against the idea that only the sublime is beautiful to the eye.

“While, oh, how all the more will love become intense
Hereafter, when ‘to love’ means yearning to dispense,
Each soul, its own amount of gain through its own mode
Of practicing with life, upon some soul which owed
Its treasure, all diverse and yet in worth the same,
To new work and changed way! Things furnish you rose-flame,
Which burn up red, green, blue, nay, yellow more than needs,
For me, I nowise doubt; why doubt a time succeeds
When each one may impart, and each receive, both share
The chemic secret, learn, – where I lit force, why there
You drew forth lambent pity, – where I found only food
For self-indulgence, you still blew a spark at brood
I’ the greyest ember, stopped not till self-sacrifice imbued
Heaven’s face with flame?” (Browning, Fifine at the Fair).

I could also argue by analogy to music without using the aesthetic principles of musicology directly, that there are ways of bringing harmony that are not reductionist.

crouching_tiger

There is the art of harmonizing counterpoint, making argument flirtatious and contrast delightful (well known from Bach’s Goldberg Variations and The Well-Tempered Clavier). In writing it resembles the tireless experimentation with prosody that appeals to obscurantists, their satirists, and pedantic attic-dwellers like Alexander Pope.

“Hard, hard, hard is it, only not to tumble,
So fantastical is the dainty meter [..]
As some rare little rose, a piece of inmost
Horticultural art, or half coquette-like
Maiden, not to be greeted unbenignly” (Tennyson 1863).

Later composers modifying the classical tradition like Béla Bartók have shown that even polytonal music can accommodate the most parochial of folk melodies from Europe’s southern margins. Harmonizing balance appeals to me more than meditation on one’s inevitable end-of-life escape from the potentially raucous but vivid and often inspired contrasts of the material world.

This makes it difficult for me to enjoy meditation as a practice or take much interest in the ideas in Eckhart Tolle’s books A New Earth or The Power of Now, except in the sense that they challenge by thinking habits and preconceptions without saying anything that sounds terribly unconventional or counterintuitive in its own right.

The argument for mental stillness that really won me over is the way patient silence allows latent insights to surface. Not purely transcendent insights that leave the material world behind, but realizations that transcend one’s habitual patterns of thought to make unexpected connections within the realm of one’s prior knowledge and experience.

“.. What joy, when each may supplement
The other, changing each as changed, till, wholly blent,
Our old things shall be new, and, what we both ignite,
Fuse, lose the varicolor in achromatic white!”
(Browning, continued)

There are more pressing, mundane ways of seeing this need that are only less easy to contemplate by way of hitting too close to home. If a wizard like Zedd would say, “sometimes to gain ground you need to slow down,” the darker way of saying the same thing is “you can’t fight time over luck.”

Bright_star

My least favorite example of hurrying for the sake of feeling urgently needed at one’s destination is the health professions’ enthusiasm for the “stretcher trot” at the expense of good listening skills or competent hand-offs among team members juggling a shared patient’s charts and supplementary oral instructions.

But I’m not easily rushed, so I find the opposite side of the logic trap made of matched, conflicting tautologies more flattering – the one that endorses procrastination instead.

Creativity experts have recognized the need for undisturbed time to think reflectively, which is hardly possible if one’s sense of felt productivity is predicated on feeling rushed. In defiance of the way the Protestant work ethic has been reconceived as the cut-everyone-off-in-traffic-if-your-appointment-means-anything-to-you work ethic, one creativity guru has even come out with a cheeky defense of procrastination.

He details all its grandiose enthusiasms about one’s hypothetical potential and also its depressive self-sabotaging delays that make testing one’s full potential impossible by only getting down to work at the last minute.

But he sees a silver lining in the way procrastination buys time for thinking outside the box – if you never risk thinking unrealistically about what can be done, you may overlook a real opportunity for feasible innovation out of overzealous avoidance of risk.

So… anticipation of your swan dive can be the very best part?

Procrastinating out of resentment about frustrating, obstinant limitations on the best possible outcome of putting in your best effort is, in reality, a no-win. But sometimes taking the time to do something else before you begin what seems most important to accomplish can be the right thing to do.

The path that suits you best may not be the path of least resistance, but resistance feels different on the path you identify with as an experience of becoming, rather than a trial of the validity of your hopes and plans.

That’s why they say resistance cannot rob you of your purpose if “the journey is the destination”, whereas you could be robbed of access to an all-consuming future goal if your actions were only a means to an end.

On beauty and being just

July 23, 2012

The immaterial is only the least common denominator in the world, not the sum of its parts. Yet art has escapist attractions for artists in the way work on it suppresses attention to the difference between the material and the transcendent. Without a striving towards beauty it can seem hard to maintain a will to live, surrounded by indifferent fears that prefer neither risk-taking nor passive resistance.

Yet that attraction and escapist charisma with which beauty as a pursuit overwhelms any other attentional bias is dangerous, too. Of all the visual tropes in The Flowers of War, the musical instrument strings a girl tries to retrieve from outside the safety of a church in a war zone are the most memorable for me, at least apart from the use of the stained glass windows. If even a more lighthearted adventure is not complete without a celebration of beauty worth fighting for, the convention only confirms in what sense there can be something frightful and imposing about an achievement in art itself.

That fear is for the audience, and not the artist purportedly consumed by his preoccupation with that work.

This makes it possible for the appearance of art as such in a drama to feel especially confrontational thanks to the work done by cameras to guide the attention of the audience through a story and its elements, a confrontation that is gendered if adventure and the idea of a damsel in distress are part of the plot.

The_Flowers_of_War_poster

The effect of art within a feature film can be visual without relying on the introduction of a painting within the frame of a cinema reel, such as the role of theater in Alatriste, or the beauty of graceful swashbuckling itself when staged for camera. These instances are different in effect from staging a play within a play, no matter how aesthetically imposing the feature film’s production design within which other works of art are to be found.

When such a confrontation is gendered the audience quickly becomes self-conscious about the implications its effect seems to entail for the way they live their own lives. But why are appearances so important to us when we memorize many ways of remarking that they are misleading? Eckhart Tolle begins the book A New Earth with a case for beauty as an end in itself rather than a selfish gene’s ploy to seduce a pollinator (flowers) or a mate of its own kind (peacocks, us). The author describes recognizing the beauty of a flower as a way of provoking contemplation of the divine Presence, celebrated in the origin story of Zen and in many other religious traditions.

The argument is startling for omitting and even rejecting the casual Social Darwinism underlying the conceptual structure of platitudes that even modern witticisms cannot be bothered to contest, about the importance of not being deceived by appearances in everyday life. Without ferreting out the Enlightenment naivete about biology and politics in the Social Darwinism of “cognitive bias” concepts used in self-awareness exercises to improve social cognition, this theory of aesthetics barely sounds plausible in informal language because it conflicts on too many levels with conventional wisdom.

Yet it should make sense, and corresponds closely to a long-retained Platonic tradition in literary philosophy. Even so, Platonic idealism about truth and love and beauty feels thwarted in the uses of art to glamorize an edifice of power or an image informed by ideology, that are not scarce in the visual environments of civilization. The more disturbing art commissions of such an elite are stereotypical, in ways that use imposing scale to subvert and co-opt the discomfort and cognitive dissonance when a spectator is torn between recoiling in fear from a tyrant’s way of taking audiences, and receiving art that greets the audience where their own tastes are to be found. Art can be so used, and yet achieve little in its domination of those it confronts on its own terms.

Tiepolo_fresco_and_stairwell

An Imperial Hall commissioned in the 18th century.

Whether or not this “was why” the Alcibiades known to Socrates and infamous locally and in the Platonic tradition struck off the noses of public statues and the tail of a dog without pretense at reasons, there is much skepticism in moral philosophy about the value of art, and the risks it takes in provoking its audience to pay attention to its arguments.

This passage is only a small part of A New Earth, and not an overriding theme of that book, but I singled it out because of how it reminded me of Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just. Both texts are convincing but counterintuitive in making arguments about how our apprehension of beauty is related to our ability to conceive of social justice on a more concrete level. Their arguments conflict substantively but also seem to share some space in Venn Diagram logic, and a comparison of the two authors’ descriptions of beauty can be used to describe that space in detail. Perhaps it also describes something intuitive to both authors that is even more convincing than either argument in full.

I’ve developed a tentative way to fit the two authors’ ideas together, using categorical reasoning to compare their descriptions of aesthetic principles and notice how common elements are found. The difference between the arguments in the two books is clear, but they aren’t entirely opposed to each other. Neither one is much circulated in art criticism as a prevailing set of assumptions for scholarship on aesthetics, but there is an intuitive plausibility to each despite their differences.

Eckhart Tolle sees beauty as something that elicits great love and also elevates consciousness by tapping into our fascination with the ethereal and our desire to transcend appearances and perceive the substance of divine Presence. Elaine Scarry sees beauty as an inspiration for justice through explicit analogy between the qualities we single out for aesthetic appreciation (of art or of beauty in nature) and the conceptual components of the idea of justice.

Their arguments can be used to build two contrasting lists of beautiful qualities. The first list corresponds closely to Eckhart Tolle’s theory of what makes a white dove or a crystal beautiful, while the second uses the narrow conceptual areas of overlap between his assumptions and Elaine Scarry’s to build the first list’s conceptual polar opposite.

Typical qualities of a beautiful object (ethereal theory of beauty)

  • lightness / paleness
  • symmetry / singularity
  • stillness / transcendence
  • smoothness / transparency

Atypical qualities of a beautiful object (material theory of beauty)

  • darkness / colorfulness
  • asymmetry / diversity
  • motion / conflict
  • surface complexity / concealed depth

I can think of favorite film moments for depicting each one.

Ethereal theory: Smoke rising in arabesques from an ornate incense burner in front of a bedroom window in Kingdom of Heaven, to the beautiful score composed by Harry Gregson Williams. Though the smoke is in motion, it moves almost vertically and being undisturbed by any breeze suggests the air in the room would actually be oppressively still if it were not too early to be as hot as the desert becomes by midday.

Material theory: Viggo Mortensen’s first entrance in Alatriste, chest deep in water, arms in an asymmetrical position, in dim light. In this scene he will show a scarf that later turns out to be captivating in its own right because it is multicolored in a wonderful way, but in this light its rich colors make it look simply like a handy dark cloth, one apparently valued but not visually striking in its own right.

Ariadna Gil and Viggo Mortensen, Alatriste

Natural beauty might balance elements from both aesthetic theories, whereas ideal beauty combines elements of only one and epitomizes that idea of beauty. Interestingly, much spiritual art (such as cathedral architecture) combines elements of both, so I wouldn’t necessarily assume one is more spiritually relevant than the other. It may be that the distinction between the two possible manifestations of beauty has spiritual significance, and that this significance is easier to appreciate when we perceive both at once.

And what happens when they are joined together? The following pairings of aesthetic and virtuous qualities that seem to share a conceptual basis were inspired more closely by Elaine Scarry’s book.

Qualities of beauty that speak to the idea of justice:

  • proportion / fairness
  • likeness / equality
  • gracefulness / dignity
  • a rhythm being even / a course of action being constant

Each of the aesthetic qualities in this short list represents a point of contact between ethereal and material beauty to me.

  • Proportion can be seen in the sides of a golden rectangle, celebrated in the design of public spaces in Athens and made up of two pairs of lines, symmetrical within pairs but asymmetrical between them, with the difference in length between pairs measured in a carefully rationalized proportion.
  • Likeness is the predicate of political equality, the idea that many discrete individuals with different stations and appearances have one shared identity as human beings, some of whose rights are innate in that identity and not acquired or alienable.
  • Graceful execution of complex movements involves giving them smooth transitions, the same qualities that make public actions dignified (as opposed to panicky capitulations to abrupt shifts in the balance of power, for instance).
  • The continuity in a military band’s rhythm is an expression of controlled forward momentum bringing change but representing the uninterrupted progress of a seemingly permanent force, neither impetuous nor easily deterred, as action in a just cause should be.

I found trying to interpret and apply both theories of beauty at once interesting, but I realize the analogies that can be made here are helped by how easily we can convince ourselves of most metaphors, with a little imagination.