Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Beautiful Dark Things – Desire from Nature

 

Earlier, @iwe wrote on desire and creativity as a holy act, on how humans are called, not to pagan imitation of nature, but to make things entirely new. And yet, for many of us, learning to imitate nature seems a necessary part of artistic discipline. Most conservatives are unlikely to be impressed, to put it mildly, by painters and sketchers without good observational-drawing skills. Music and literature, too, benefit from observant imitation of the natural world. Neither the sound of the sea nor the sight of the Milky Way could be imitated exactly in a song or poem, of course, but an artist may find that the only reason a work of his exists is because he attempted to record these natural features faithfully.

Matsuo Basho wrote a haiku sandwiching an island between the turbulent sea and the River of Heaven – the Milky Way. Music for that haiku might spring from hearing, over and over, the relentless beat of waves in your head, from the desire to imitate that sound, the desire to imitate, sonically, the frosty light of so many stars, to imitate nature’s creation of a beautiful dark thing:

Putting that into music feels like imitation of nature, but of course it is not. It could not be. And yet, preceding as if it were mere imitation of nature produced a thing entirely new. Not entirely new in every way. The music clearly owes a debt to previous composers, as well as to Basho. But new in that nobody could have forecast that that would be the result of the imitative intent that motivated it. The new thing had to be discovered through an attempt at imitation.

Wallace Stevens, in The Idea of Order at Key West, observes that human song in imitation of the sea nonetheless goes “beyond the genius of the sea”, imposes an order upon the sea that the sea by itself could never have. More than one poetess has wished, no doubt, to be the woman described in the poem, so that “when she sang, the sea, / Whatever self it had, became the self / That was her song, for she was the maker.” But perhaps the power to be the maker is not that special, not special because that’s just what human creativity is.

The narrator and his companion find that, after witnessing the song, the everyday lights of civilization, little human lights often overlooked as unremarkable, “Master[] the night and portion[] out the sea, / Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles, / Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.” The humble jigsaw of human ownership leaves the night an even more beautiful dark thing. No one who lit those lights intended to deepen the night, it’s just what happens with human lights, just for being human.

Individuality is a prized feature of art – too prized, a lot of conservatives would say. Even so, when we believe that “When someone invests in creating a poem or a piece of music or art, that creator has invested their soul into that object,” of course the result is individualized – how could it not be?

Artists building and curating a brand for themselves obviously must think explicitly of the individuality they’re establishing, but what grabs me is how much our individuality is exposed in work not consciously intended to be anything more than mere imitation of nature. When we strive to imitate the sound of the sea, when our humble, little lights imitate the stars, we leave a human mark on the sea and the night, as if being human means having the power to re-create them into something beyond themselves even by merely imitating them.

The eclipse, that beautiful dark thing, is likely to be grist for many a maker’s mill.

Written on the eve of the 2017 eclipse.

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  1. RightAngles Member

    of course the result is individualized – how could it not be?

    Very true. And even when an artist is being derivative or otherwise relying too much on the style of others, the result still has that person’s unique imprint.

    Beautiful music.

    • #1
    • August 20, 2017, at 10:19 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  2. Titus Techera Contributor

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: But perhaps the power to be the maker is not that special, not special because that’s just what human creativity is.

    This part does not seem sound. If one says, man is a maker, that that is specific to his being, or special, one does not thereby ignore that not all men are very good makers. I’d say that the opposite is accomplished in the ordinary run of things whenever we seek, reward, & honor the best–we know what man is from the best men.

    Next, making is not uncomplicated. There seem to be two kinds of arts or sciences, you can call them theoretical & practical, contemplation & making. It is not evident that poetry, which itself means making, really is any kind of making. If it is making speeches, then we all are. But we are not all poets!

    If you want to look at it clearly, the problem is this. An art that makes things must know its matter–but does not decide what to make–it needs guidance from a wish or a desire. The poet would then wait on his audience. But an art that is a contemplation, which would free the poet from the tyranny of his audience, has its own requirements: it would have to know its elements, their number & their relationships. It would seem we are trapped between the two, in order to preserve both our claims to freedom & our ability to communicate.

    • #2
    • August 20, 2017, at 11:42 PM PDT
    • Like
  3. Titus Techera Contributor

    So maybe it’s best to think about what Wallace Stevens is trying to talk about in that poem. There’s a lady who sings, but you do not hear her song–you read that there she is & that’s what she’s doing. There is not relation between her song & the speech you read. That would seem to be the relation between the spontaneous & the artificial. It is the maker of the poem who calls the lady a maker. Now, if he is witnessing something essential–what is it? The sea is nature in its formlessness, infinite, & unpredictable. It’s probably easier to make sense of his intention that way–if you think that it’s what Hemingway had in mind in The old man & the sea.

    • #3
    • August 20, 2017, at 11:55 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  4. Titus Techera Contributor

    As for the Basho haiku–isn’t the point more like in the first chapter of Genesis, the separation of waters below & above? You can no more see the heavens than the sea without light–but the stars do not seem to be the point there. It’s the strange solidity of the island, surrounded by motions.

    • #4
    • August 21, 2017, at 12:01 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  5. Percival Thatcher
    Percival Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Titus Techera (View Comment):

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: But perhaps the power to be the maker is not that special, not special because that’s just what human creativity is.

    This part does not seem sound. If one says, man is a maker, that that is specific to his being, or special, one does not thereby ignore that not all men are very good makers. I’d say that the opposite is accomplished in the ordinary run of things whenever we seek, reward, & honor the best–we know what man is from the best men.

    There are all kinds of making. Not every work achieves immortality, or even temporary fame. Just because it doesn’t reach that rarified level doesn’t mean that it fails to evoke the spark of the divine that is our creativity.

    We are made in His image. He is Creator, therefore we create as well.

    • #5
    • August 21, 2017, at 1:37 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  6. Titus Techera Contributor

    Percival (View Comment):

    Titus Techera (View Comment):

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: But perhaps the power to be the maker is not that special, not special because that’s just what human creativity is.

    This part does not seem sound. If one says, man is a maker, that that is specific to his being, or special, one does not thereby ignore that not all men are very good makers. I’d say that the opposite is accomplished in the ordinary run of things whenever we seek, reward, & honor the best–we know what man is from the best men.

    There are all kinds of making. Not every work achieves immortality, or even temporary fame. Just because it doesn’t reach that rarified level doesn’t mean that it fails to evoke the spark of the divine that is our creativity.

    We are made in His image. He is Creator, therefore we create as well.

    I think that’s way trickier than it sounds. Here’s one paradox. How do are we commanded to be like God? By keeping the Sabbath holy. God rested, free of creation, work, &c. So must we achieve some leisure from our busyness. But that’s not creation–it’s way closer to contemplation!

    • #6
    • August 21, 2017, at 1:54 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  7. Titus Techera Contributor

    As for being commanded by God, that’s to be fruitful & multiply. That’s creation.

    • #7
    • August 21, 2017, at 1:55 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  8. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    Now, if he is witnessing something essential–what is it? The sea is nature in its formlessness, infinite, & unpredictable.

    Oh, did I forget to include the link to Tiamat? I meant to. Yes, I agree about the vast formlessness of the sea.

    It’s probably easier to make sense of his intention that way–if you think that it’s what Hemingway had in mind in The old man & the sea.

    I did read The Old Man and the Sea in my youth. It is perhaps the world’s longest fish story. I’m not sure I ever get much out of Hemingway other than “look how manly my writing is — see what a pansy I’m not”.

    • #8
    • August 21, 2017, at 4:55 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  9. Titus Techera Contributor

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake (View Comment):

    Titus Techera (View Comment):

    It’s probably easier to make sense of his intention that way–if you think that it’s what Hemingway had in mind in The old man & the sea.

    I did read The Old Man and the Sea in my youth. It is perhaps the world’s longest fish story. I’m not sure I ever get much out of Hemingway other than “look how manly my writing is — see what a pansy I’m not”.

    You’re maybe bringing to that book stuff you’ve heard about the guy or maybe read in his early writings. The old man & the sea is a work of rare sensitivity. The fact that it’s an old man & a boy; the mention of Joe DiMaggio & baseball generally; & the old man’s reflections on where man stands to nature–they make for a story rarely equaled in American literature. Perhaps you will find the time at some point to read it. Perhaps you will read it to your boy when he’s the age of the boy in the story-

    • #9
    • August 21, 2017, at 5:05 AM PDT
    • Like
  10. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:Wallace Stevens, in The Idea of Order at Key West, observes that human song in imitation of the sea nonetheless goes “beyond the genius of the sea”, imposes an order upon the sea that the sea by itself could never have.

    Here is the link to Tiamat.

    • #10
    • August 21, 2017, at 5:05 AM PDT
    • Like
  11. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    As for the Basho haiku–isn’t the point more like in the first chapter of Genesis, the separation of waters below & above? You can no more see the heavens than the sea without light–but the stars do not seem to be the point there. It’s the strange solidity of the island, surrounded by motions.

    Sado Island, during Basho’s time, was something like a penal colony, a place inconvenient nobles were sent, never to return. The solidity of the island may be less notable than the island’s wild loneliness, squeezed between two infinities.

    The stars as individual points of light are not the point, I agree, but in terms of making the music imitate the words, going for a “starlike ” sense of sonic light makes sense. There’s also a rippling ascent on “River” in “River of Heaven”, a phrase which suggests flow rather than stasis, putting the idea of fluid motion both above and below the island, although the Milky Way also has an immense stillness which opposes the mutability and restlessness of the sea.

    • #11
    • August 21, 2017, at 5:30 AM PDT
    • Like
  12. Titus Techera Contributor
    1. Are you sure there’s a difference between solidity & loneliness in this case?
    2. What’s the psychological meaning of the smothering heavens & restless sea (assuming the translator knows what he’s saying)?
    • #12
    • August 21, 2017, at 5:42 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  13. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    What’s the psychological meaning of the smothering heavens & restless sea (assuming the translator knows what he’s saying)?

    What the translator translated as “smothers” is in other translations translated as reaching over or stretching across, but apparently means literally lying still on. No English translation uses “lies still on” that I’m aware of. One even uses “flows” over — rather different from lying still! But putting all these cues together, if you don’t speak Japanese, suggests the Milky Way surrounds the island from above and doesn’t budge, something that is sorta like smothering, and according to his students, captures the feel of the poem in the original Japanese. It is true, however, that a Japanese word literally meaning “smothers” wasn’t used. The state of the sea is variously translated as rough, turbulent, wild — every translation seems compatible with a sense of agitation.

    • #13
    • August 21, 2017, at 9:00 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  14. Titus Techera Contributor

    The wife says the music is very beautiful. I also took a liking to it, but who can compete with such superlatives!

    • #14
    • August 21, 2017, at 10:00 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  15. Fredösphere Member
    Fredösphere Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Titus Techera (View Comment):

    I think that’s way trickier than it sounds. Here’s one paradox. How do are we commanded to be like God? By keeping the Sabbath holy. God rested, free of creation, work, &c. So must we achieve some leisure from our busyness. But that’s not creation–it’s way closer to contemplation!

    Those who want to go deeper into this idea–that Godly art needs a contemplative side, and that religious art today needs to return to contemplation and that, until it does, it will continue to suck–should listen to Ben DeBono on this topic. The podcast is called The Sci-Fi Christian, but Ben is a very thoughtful person. The podcast covers lots of deep topics relating to theology and culture and is not limited to science fiction at all. I highly recommend it!

    • #15
    • August 21, 2017, at 4:29 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  16. Percival Thatcher
    Percival Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Fredösphere (View Comment):

    Titus Techera (View Comment):

    I think that’s way trickier than it sounds. Here’s one paradox. How do are we commanded to be like God? By keeping the Sabbath holy. God rested, free of creation, work, &c. So must we achieve some leisure from our busyness. But that’s not creation–it’s way closer to contemplation!

    Those who want to go deeper into this idea–that Godly art needs a contemplative side, and that religious art today needs to return to contemplation and that, until it does, it will continue to suck–should listen to Ben DeBono on this topic. The podcast is called The Sci-Fi Christian, but Ben is a very thoughtful person. The podcast covers lots of deep topics relating to theology and culture and is not limited to science fiction at all. I highly recommend it!

    I’ll look for it, Fredö. Thanks.

    • #16
    • August 21, 2017, at 4:48 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  17. Titus Techera Contributor

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake (View Comment):

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    What’s the psychological meaning of the smothering heavens & restless sea (assuming the translator knows what he’s saying)?

    What the translator translated as “smothers” is in other translations translated as reaching over or stretching across, but apparently means literally lying still on. No English translation uses “lies still on” that I’m aware of. One even uses “flows” over — rather different from lying still! But putting all these cues together, if you don’t speak Japanese, suggests the Milky Way surrounds the island from above and doesn’t budge, something that is sorta like smothering, and according to his students, captures the feel of the poem in the original Japanese. It is true, however, that a Japanese word literally meaning “smothers” wasn’t used. The state of the sea is variously translated as rough, turbulent, wild — every translation seems compatible with a sense of agitation.

    I’m not buying it. I can go so far as to see ‘the vast indifference of heaven’ there; but not the smothering business.

    But I was trying to suggest rethinking what the sea means. Maybe restlessness is existentially adequate to the situation!

    • #17
    • August 21, 2017, at 9:49 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  18. Grosseteste Member

    Thank you for this!


    This conversation is part of a Group Writing series with the theme “Beauty”, planned for the whole month of August. If you follow this link, you can see the links to other August posts, which will be updated as the month goes on. The theme for September is “Cars,” please click on this link and sign up!

    • #18
    • August 23, 2017, at 8:38 PM PDT
    • Like
  19. Trink Coolidge
    Trink Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:  . . the desire to imitate that sound, the desire to imitate, sonically, the frosty light of so many stars, to imitate nature’s creation of a beautiful dark thing:

    Midge, is that music your composition? Hauntingly perfect. I’ve just stepped in from outside where the night music of the tree crickets was as moving as the total eclipse.

    • #19
    • August 24, 2017, at 6:53 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  20. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Trink (View Comment):
    Midge, is that music your composition?

    Well… (blush)… it’s my real-life alias’s composition… ;-P

    • #20
    • August 24, 2017, at 7:25 PM PDT
    • 3 likes

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