These past few days I've been very happy to have had the company of my great friend Thierry Bogliolo and we've visited many art museums, eaten plenty of good food, and laughed a lot.
Thinking now about art I'm still puzzled as to what contemporary art might be. The Harrier jet, by Fiona Banner, hung in 2010 in the Tate Britain, is striking, a bit frightening, disorientating, and definitely bold. And I could add other art installations to this one. And yet... walking through the Peabody Essex Museum and seeing, perhaps, an Eighteenth Century portrait I found myself in the presence of something else, something that moved my heart. There was a tenderness in such works, an awareness of human frailty. Poignancy, if you wish.
William Faulkner said that the only things worth writing about were the mysteries of the human heart. I don't know if he's right, today, but he was right then. Is art supposed to slap us around the face? If that is true then the Imperial War Museum will do that, and you will leave it feeling extremely sad. Or is it better to place an arm around our shoulders and ask us, "Take another look; this will move you to see what is positive in the world"?
This is now a hot topic - and plenty of people who have found out personally the benefits of memoir writing have come forward to tout the efficacy of this method. I agree. It is extraordinarily effective as a healing modality.
Yet, as I have learned it must be handled very carefully.
Trauma comes in many forms, and there's a very real danger that when one unearths diificult material one will reignite the feelings that are attached to it. This is what they don't tell us at workshops (or rarely) and it's a major issue.
Trauma comes in two basic forms -- Big T Trauma - which can be rape, incest, war, physical terror or something of that kind; and little t trauma, which is what most people encounter. Both can be hard to deal with. Both can paralyze us. The difference is that Big T Trauma requires a very different approach. Why is this? It's a matter of brain chemistry. In order for trauma to be healed it has to be brought from the Unconscious, where it has been stored, and made Conscious. Big T Trauma is stored in an entirely different part of the brain, because at some level the individual knows that this is just too hard to deal with and the memories get locked away. Different therapies are required to cause it to surface. When it does emerge it is sometimes best not even to ask the individual to verbalize about those memories. They're still too raw. Clearly, to get to such a place the individual must be allowed to feel completely safe - and that is not a task that is easy.
A blog post is not the place to go into details about Big T. My task here is simply to sound a warning. Writing can be immensely helpful. I've seen it work wonders. But it isn't infallible.
And that's why I do what I do. I can recognize the difference between the traumas and help the individual to cope appropriately, allowing the reprocessing without re-traumatizing.
I've been invited to give a talk about books and faith and naturally I have a few favorites I'd like to discuss with the folks who come. What has become increasingly apparent to me is that many books, especially fiction, seek to explore what the spiritual world might be. In the process they often help to redefine what we understand about spirituality, and therefore about our faith in it (or lack thereof).
Perhaps one could go even further: any book that is any good will inevitably ask difficult questions, even questions that have no answers - and so to some extent will push the boundaries of existing understandings about faith.
Literature, in general, seeks to show through words that which cannot actually be stated in words. That's why poetry evokes far more than it defines. That's why a passage of Jane Austen suggests more than it says. We are asked to be part of the process of making meaning - and each one of us will make a slightly different meaning.
Perhaps one could say that all writing, all books, question faith. In the process of doing so they may actually help to build that faith into something stronger than it was before.
It's time for a huge shout out to the wonderful people at Fox Hill Village, in Westwood, who were the enthusiastic participants in my Jane Austen lecture series this month. It isn't often that one gets to talk about such a deeply powerful author with a room full of folks who are insightful, engaged, and wise - and the resultant experience was remarkable, all around.
These days so few people seem to know 'the classics' at all, and few people seem to care that they are missing out on a writer who can tell us, still, a great deal about what is amiss with our society. This gathering of minds showed me otherwise.
Did we talk about present day politics? Did we talk about posturing politicians? Did we make reference to some of the eternal values of being human and alive? Yes, we did.
Recently I read with interest Peter Schjeldahl’s piece on Renoir in The NewYorker, (“Skin Deep”, Aug. 26, 2019) and discovered with relief that I was not alone in finding Renoir’s nudes to be puzzling. Those skin surfaces, as smooth and featureless as a Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade inflatable, had always troubled me. The article prompted me to think again about those huge thighs and buttocks (were his models really that large?) matched with the tiny facial features scrunched up in one corner of the face, framed with luxurious tresses – it all seemed bizarre to me.
It seems that even Renoir's models were surprised at the images he produced, and were puzzled at how little they resembled the sitters.
After reading Schjeldahl’s comments it occurred to me that these chocolate-box colors, this cheesecake presentation, were enmeshed with the exaggerated size of the hips and groin. The effect is to emphasize the genital area – the very area that soft porn wishes to draw our attention to. Renoir, surely, delivers a version of soft porn, but by exaggerating the areas of sexual interest he also subverts the male gaze, asking, as it were, “Is this what you want? Really?” It’s a balancing act of superb perception.
Getting older, I tend to notice that the face I encounter each day in the mirror is looking more and more like my father's. I see this with amusement - since I spent quite large portions of my youth saying I would never, ever be anything remotely like my parents. Yet here I am. Their DNA is now mine, suitably mixed, and I even have some of their mannerisms. So, if that's the case, who am I as an individual? Am I an individual at all? If I look like my parents then what's to stop me thinking like them, being like them, despite the surface differences I cling to?
Our age is obsessed with the idea that we're all unique - and so we are - but we are also very clearly linked to those who came before us. How would it be if we stopped trying to be people who aren't like the rest, and started accepting that we're not as special as we think? How would it be if we stopped saying, "How can I make my mark on the world?" and started saying, "How can I continue the good work that generations before me have done?"
There's much more to travel than simply arriving - although with our air-conditioned cars and our earbuds we tend to block out the physicality of moving from place to place. That can be a sad loss in our awareness and in our ability to communicate about who we are.
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