Transcending Singularity

Apropos of my latest post on fear of the moment, here are two essayists — one a Chassidic scholar, the other a Christian painter — with encouraging insights into how imagination and spirituality help us not only transcend the particularity of our lives, but actually turn it into a richer experience than that of mere undifferentiated Being.

At, Yanki Tauber writes in his essay “Three Divine Echoes: Singularity, Plurality and Oneness“:

Creation, as described in the teachings of Kabbalah, is an evolution from the utterly singular to the plural and dichotomous. The entirety of existence originates as the divine yen to create — a desire as singular as its Conceiver. But latent in this desire is also another face of the divine — the infinite possibilities implicit in G-d’s unlimited potential. Thus, the singular desire for creation gives birth to our plural world, a world whose immense detail and complexity bespeak the infinite potential of its Creator.

None of this, in and of itself, is the negative phenomenon we call evil. Yet the seeds for evil are here. Plurality begets divisiveness, and divisiveness begets conflict. As long as a plural reality still echoes its singular source, divisiveness will not take root and spawn strife; but with the development of each particular entity in the diversity of creation into a self that is distinct of the cosmic whole, divisiveness/strife/evil rears its head.

How does one restore the divine unity to a fragmented world? By delving even further into its plurality.

For such is the paradox of life: the more something is broken down to its particulars, the more we uncover opportunities for unity.

Take, for example, two physical substances. Your five senses perceive them as different and unconnected; but place them under a microscope and you will discover that they are comprised of similar components — they might even share an element or two. The deeper you delve, descending to the molecular, atomic, and sub-atomic levels, the more unanimity you will find — and the more ways you will discover to harness these diverse substances toward a singular end….

Thus we introduce a new factor into the cosmic equation: harmony. We evolve from the ultimate singularity to plurality to diversity, but diversity need not disintegrate into strife. Instead, the diversity can be further dissected into the ingredients of harmony — a harmony that mirrors the singularity out of which the entire process was born.

A harmonious world, however, does more than reflect the tranquil singularity of its origins; it reaches beyond it to uncover a new, hitherto unexpressed, face of the divine reality. Life on earth is more than the endeavor to come full circle, to undo creation by restoring its primordial unity. The descent from singularity into diversity is an investment, and (like any self-respecting investor) G-d expects to realize a profit from His outlay. The profit is harmony, which is a deeper, truer expression of the divine unity than the pre-creation singularity.

If there is one phrase that encapsulates the Jewish faith, it is the Shema, the verse recited by the Jew every morning and evening of his life, and the last words to issue from his dying lips: “Hear O Israel, the L-rd is our G-d, the L-rd is one.” But why, ask our sages, does the verse employ the Hebrew word echad (“one”) to connote G-d’s unity? The word “one” can also be used to refer to something that is one of a series (as in “one, two, three…”), or to something composed of several components (as in “one loaf of bread,” “one human being,” “one community”). G-d’s unity transcends such “oneness”, as Maimonides states in the opening chapter of his Mishneh Torah. Would not the Hebrew word yachid (“singular,” “only one”) have been more appropriate?

But singularity is a challengeable oneness, a oneness that may be obscured by the emergence of plurality. As we have seen, when G-d’s infinite potential is expressed in the countless particulars of a diverse creation, this results in a concealment of His oneness. The life-endeavor of the Jew is to effect a truer expression of G-d’s oneness — the oneness of echad. Echad is the oneness of harmony: not a oneness which negates plurality (and which plurality therefore obscures), but a oneness that employs plurality as the implement of unity.

Read the whole article here. Meanwhile, Bruce Herman’s essay “The Body, Beauty and Brokenness” explores what embodiment means to a contemporary artist reinterpreting Western art’s complex legacy: the Christian tradition of incarnate spirituality, and the misuses of the classical aesthetic tradition to devalue non-white, non-male bodies. Herman proposes that instead of escaping embodied particularity via abstraction, or reducing art to political self-assertion, we as artists can inhabit our vulnerability and physicality to find points of connection with other souls similarly in need of healing. “My thesis is that the body is the location where hope is to be uncovered—the arena of body-issues touching on the eternal, not simply a political battleground where personal rights are resolved. Moreover, I will propose that art-making is really a species of hoping—a means of apprehending hope—not simply a tool for establishing a personal memorial.” Later in the essay, Herman writes:

In Pictures of the Body [art theorist James Elkins] continues to discuss the phenomenon of what I’ll call the hungering eye. He claims that there are two fundamental modes of seeing bodies — what he calls first-seeing and second-seeing. In first-seeing we are relaxed and sated with our hunger for the vision of bodies — we engage in this mode of looking when we are with people. In human company there are plenty of images of the body in our immediate visual field. We are therefore sated visually. In second-seeing, we restlessly search the visual field for bodies — in cloud-reading or on stained walls for example, we imagine all sorts of bodily forms.

This second-sight is involuntary and natural and fulfills a deeply embedded need for orienting our own body in the world of space and time. According to Elkins we cannot not see bodies — because we are hard-wired for human presence. Presumably this is true for other sentient beings as well. Dogs look for dogs and cats for cats in the visual arena.

Elkins argues that in so-called first-seeing we experience our embodiment as a species of pain – life is pain in one very real sense. For Elkins this is a general state—not in the usual sense of acute suffering. Rather, he uses the term pain to denote a certain sense of normal discomfort, of unease in our bodies. First-seeing, though also a state of being sated with human presence, is a form of tension and stress. For the sake of clarity lets say that first-seeing involves visual contact with real bodies in real time, hence it also involves all the associations of human society— including the typical rivalry and competition that this might imply. Thus Elkins’ association of first-seeing with pain.

In second-seeing, in our picturing of bodies in clouds, in odd-stains on a wall, in our art and language — in our human constructions of bodies we attempt to satisfy an even deeper hunger than the mere desire to see bodies. We hunger for transcendence and metamorphosis, as Elkins puts it.

By making images of bodies, we are engaging in Elkins’ second-seeing. We all know that art is not life — though as Picasso once memorably quipped, “Life often imitates art.” But our first-seeing is survival seeing. It’s our basic need to be with other bodies. To be among our tribe. Art-making is a secondary way of encountering the body of another —a means of making form and forming a body with our hands and eyes. It’s a means of establishing a presence that lives beyond our own physical space. In a sense you could say that making a picture of a body is a way of being in two places at once.

Like Lucretius’ idea that membranes of a form come to us like shed snake-skins through the ether to give us a means of touching bodies that are distant from our own body, art is a means of making real presences of our thoughts, our feelings, and our faith. I’d go a step further and say that making art is the same as looking for hope. You make an image in order to see if it will stick—if it will become permanent. Our own internal sense of impermanence is ever increasing—especially as the war wears on—and I don’t mean only the current war in Iraq or the oft-cited war on terror. The most wearisome war of all is the battle with our own self-centeredness and apparent need to dominate others lest we be so dominated. This is also the war St. Paul speaks of in his letter to the Christians at Ephesus: not against flesh and blood, as the Apostle says.

And with this, I come back to the central thing I’d like to discuss in this essay. I said that making art is like looking for hope. It’s a way of floating a message-in-the-bottle out there to see if anyone is looking or listening for you. A way of being in two places at once. But why try to do this? Are we trying to make a memorial to ourselves like Pharaoh or so many other restless souls that hope to attain immortality through their art? Yes and no.

I do think that we make art in order to survive death. There’s probably no more profound motivation behind literature, philosophy, and the arts. It’s even the prime motivation behind science and medicine as well. Permanence is something we long for at the most fundamental levels. So in a very real sense, yes, I am saying that I make my paintings in order to survive my own demise. But there is a deeper and better reason, I hope, for making pictures of the body. And that reason can be sketched, I believe, in the following way.

If every picture is an image of the body, and our hungering eye seeks always and everywhere to be sated with the human touch, the human presence, then not only our eyes, but also our hearts and minds are filled with presences. Eliot, in his essay on tradition, speaks of the crucial need for artists to heed the “dead poets” as he puts it. These presences—of the dead—are no less real in the traditions of art and literature than the person next to us in a lit class or on a subway train. And the presence of the dead, of the past as a present voice, is the very essence of tradition. Tradition in this sense is understood as conversation unbroken by death or the passage of time—not as a means of stopping time or preserving some precious thing. It’s not so much preservation as a transmitting, as Hans Georg Gadamer puts it in The Relevance of the Beautiful . Every act of transmitting tradition, according to Gadamer, is simultaneously an act of translation. [3] In other words, when we stand in a tradition we are not simply trying to maintain a status quo, we’re in the business of translating what is past into what is truly present and thereby extending and elaborating that tradition. This is what Eliot refers to at the end of his essay as “what is already living” [4]—i.e., tradition is a means by which the past presses on us and forms us and lends meaning and purpose to our lives through a sense of continuity and coherence.

The tradition of the human figure in painting is no exception to Eliot’s general theory of poetic form. We need to experience our bodies as permanent —as occupying time and space beyond our immediate era—as transcending death and disease and the terrors of history, yet ironically emerging from that very history.

Related to Eliot’s concept of tradition is Elkins’ idea that in second-seeing we fill our visual field with images of the body in order to fulfill some deep seated need for continuity and transcendence. This idea affirms our need to affiliate with others, to belong—something deeply threatened by our current culture of autonomy. (Read the recent best-seller Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam to grasp the seriousness of this trend [5] .) Secondly, it acknowledges the possibility of transcendence in the midst of pain. Of course, I do not think that Elkins is a Christian or holds any particular belief in life after death, nor do I think he’d even agree with Eliot’s insistence that we gain our meaning through conforming to a specific tradition. At best Elkins would probably affirm the fact that all human culture seeks a kind of immortality through its arts.

But this amounts to an acknowledgement of weakness, of need, of dependence, of desire for a life beyond our ourselves. This is what I think Elkins affirms, and this might point us toward a better meaning of what our art making might be.

This brings me to a personal disclosure: I make art because I desire to be known in my weakness. I want to be known and understood and seen in the context of history—in that larger conversation that Eliot speaks of. And by way of confession, let me say that I admit to having felt that ugly and injurious thing called envy and vainglory at many junctures in my professional life. But by saying that I make art in order to be known, I do not automatically assume that this is always a species of vainglory or fame-seeking.

The builders of the Tower of Babel sought to “make a name” for themselves—to be known in all the earth as brilliant architects who had built a bridge between heaven and earth—to have attained immort
ality through their art.

And they said, “Come, let us build for ourselves a city and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the earth.” [6]

Much of human art and culture is just this, an attempt to secure our own names in perpetuity—to build our personal pyramid or tower. Yet the desire to be known in all my weakness and incompleteness may actually constitute the opposite of fame-idolatry—a genuine striving for transcendence—for a permanence in human touch and human presence, and thus a form of prayer and love also to God. It is also a bid for community among other broken people; a sense of belonging.

The moment of our brokenness becomes then the main meeting place not only of human touch but divine touch as well. The very thing attempted by the builders of Babel happens by grace instead of by human effort—a bridge between heaven and earth is established via the very thing we sought to avoid: our need, our weakness, and our dependence. And this what I most want to say here—that brokenness and weakness are possibly the only genuine means by which we can touch on things transcendent. In a word, humility invites the real presence of the divine.

Read the whole essay here. Herman is scheduled to speak at the Amherst Center for Christian Studies on December 7 at 7 PM on the topic “Beautiful iPeople: iPod, Pop Culture and Genuine Beauty”.