Monthly Archives: August 2021

A Tale of Two Visions

Way back in 1959, when I was in 8th grade, I watched one of the early programs on the new public tv channel.  It was Alan Watts discoursing on Eastern spiritual traditions.  He very emphatically made the point that the Eastern vision, especially the Chinese Taoist vision,  of the human being, of nature, of reality, is so radically different from the Western version of these.  He illustrated it by comparing a painting from ancient China and one from the Renaissance in Europe.  I found the whole thing so mesmerizing; never forgot the experience.  I would like to “re-live” the experience as it were, but with two different paintings that I think are even more interesting in this illustration, and maybe they show things may be more complex and more nuanced than Watts presented.  So….let us begin.

Sometimes no words are needed.   All you need do is LOOK.  What you see, what you think you see, and what you don’t see are all interesting.  Here two different sets of artwork invite comparison and contrast.  So, lets begin by just looking and pondering…..

The first painting is a prime example of German Romanticism, early 19th Century, Caspar David Friedrich.

The second one is from China: by Shih T’ao in the Ming Dynasty, 17th Century.

And just for emphasis I’ve included a third painting, another from China, something surprisingly very similar, by Shen Zhou,  also in the Ming Dynasty, 16th Century.




Some notes on the Friedrich painting:

Romanticism as a movement in Western art, literature, and music is a fascinating phenomenon.  One of its key aspects, but certainly not the only one, is the reaction and revolt from the classical formalism of medieval and renaissance art and the scientific rationalism of the Enlightenment Period.  Furthermore, the very place of nature changes radically; it is no longer merely the backdrop, the landscape, the stage on which the human drama unfolds.  Here it becomes almost the protagonist which engages the human.  In classical, medieval, and renaissance art, the religious and spiritual is primarily mediated through the human and its various institutions.  In the Enlightenment all this crumbles (and a lot of Romantic art shows that….like ruins of old churches).  One of the most striking aspects of Romanticism, then, is the mystical human-divine encounter that is now mediated by nature and no longer by the human constructs of civilization.  There is more emphasis on Mystery rather than the clarity and the human-centeredness of earlier art. 

 However, this must also be noted:  at times  in Romantic art the human is “writ-large.”  The human being is not a part of the Whole, but the centerpiece if you will, even if at times the human presence in the scene is minimal.   And nature itself is something “out there,” something outside us, which mediates the Mystery and mysticism of reality.    Romantic art “seeks to convey a subjective, emotional response to the natural world.  The human focus is for all practical purposes on the ego self, human feelings, even irrationality (as opposed to rational thinking), subjectivity, etc.

An interesting note on Friedrich’s art found in Wikipedia:

“The visualization and portrayal of landscape in an entirely new manner was Friedrich’s key innovation. He sought not just to explore the blissful enjoyment of a beautiful view, as in the classic conception, but rather to examine an instant of sublimity, a reunion with the spiritual self through the contemplation of nature. Friedrich was instrumental in transforming landscape in art from a backdrop subordinated to human drama to a self-contained emotive subject.] Friedrich’s paintings commonly employed the Ruckenfigur—a person seen from behind, contemplating the view. The viewer is encouraged to place himself in the position of the Rückenfigur, by which means he experiences the sublime potential of nature, understanding that the scene is as perceived and idealised by a human. Friedrich created the notion of a landscape full of romantic feeling—die romantische Stimmungslandschaft.  His art details a wide range of geographical features, such as rock coasts, forests, and mountain scenes. He often used the landscape to express religious themes. During his time, most of the best-known paintings were viewed as expressions of a religious mysticism.”

And now for something different!

A note from David Hinton on the first Chinese painting:

(David Hinton, a noted translator and student of Chinese poetry and thought, has commented on Shih Tao’s painting).

“Like countless other paintings in the Chinese tradition, this painting by Shih T’ao appears at first glance to show someone gazing into a landscape, an artist-intellectual accompanied by his attendant. But mysterious dimensions quickly reveal themselves, suggesting there is much more here than meets the eye.  The poem inscribed on the painting describes a landscape that includes ruins of city walls and houses, abandoned orchards and gardens, but there is no sign of such things in the painting. The painting’s visible landscape isn’t realistic at all. It feels infused with mystery: depths of pale ink wash; black lines blurred, smeared, bleeding; mountains dissolving into faint blue haze. And there’s so much empty space in the composition, so much mist and sky. This sense of empty space is expanded dramatically by the soaring perspective: the mountain ranges appearing one beyond another suggest the gazer is standing on a mountaintop of impossible heights. And he seems a part of that emptiness, his body the same texture and color as the haze suffusing mountain valleys. Finally, there is the suggestion that the image is somehow a rendering of the gazer’s mind, an interior landscape we may possibly share when looking attentively at the painting. Or perhaps that the gazer has returned to some kind of originary place where mountains are welling up into existence for the first time, alive and writhing with primeval energy? Perhaps both at the same time: an originary place indistinguishable from the gazer’s mind, and even indistinguishable from our own minds?”

While Romantic art can look a lot like Chinese Taoist art in many cases, the differences are significant and, I think, more interesting.  As defective as the Romantic vision is, the situation today  sadly lacks even its stronger points, and we have succumbed to an incredible blindness  .  Now nature is more of a resource available for our exploitation, as a money-maker, or simply as another “toy” we play with, a stage setting for our “cultural selfies.”  As for the Chinese Taoist vision, we are so far from it that it almost seems incomprehensible to most people today.

A More Reasonable Discussion

A few weeks ago Pope Francis came down hard on the traditional Latin Mass in the pre-Vatican II mode.  This caused a flurry of reactions from all sides of the issue.  There were quite a few so-called liberal Catholics who hailed the move, saying it was about time the Vatican put an end to this “crypto-separatist” movement that questioned the authority of Pope Francis.  Of course these are also the same voices often calling for more “diversity” in the Church and quite willing to challenge any pope on an issue they disagree, etc.  On the other side, there were the elements proclaiming an apocalyptic moment for the Church and western culture.  “The sky is falling!”  A more restrained but still negative evaluation was provided by Ross Douthat, an intelligent New York Times writer on matters of religion with whom I find myself disagreeing most of the time.  He has a way of seeming to explain things by framing the argument in terms of these labels: conservative vs. liberal, right vs. left.  Really this explains nothing, neither in religion nor in politics.  These labels are a kind of convenient shorthand, a code for a complex cluster of beliefs, opinions, views, self-understandings, etc., but in themselves they explain nothing.  The labels may be convenient, but you have to see beneath them to understand what is really going on.  In other words, you have to set your heart on the truth, no matter what label is attached to it.  Gandhi used this word in reference to his philosophy and his movement:  satyagraha, truth force, or holding on to the truth.   We see this lacking very much in both our politics and our religious culture.

A refreshing example of something much better is this recent op-ed piece in the National Catholic Reporter by Rebecca Bratten Weiss:

“The Traditional Latin Mass is not the Problem with the Traditionalist Communities”

There is a very serious problem with the “traditionalist” communities, but it’s not the Latin liturgy.  Weiss is very good at rooting this out and illustrating how this brouhaha over the presence/absence of Latin and the traditional liturgy is a smokescreen that obfuscates the very real problems for both the liberals and conservatives in the Church.    She merely opens a little crack on this problem; there is so much more to see here. 

 An interesting historical sidelight:  two prominent icons of “liberal Catholicism,” had a love for the Latin liturgy….Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day.   Merton, to his dying day prayed his Office in Latin.  He was totally conversant in Latin, and on the other hand he often lamented on the banality of the English translations.  Day strictly adhered to the protocols of the Roman Mass, and she would not allow the use of cupcakes or anything like that in her Catholic Worker community in New York, a practice  which was common among “liberal” Catholics in the late ‘60s.  The young people there chafed at her “authoritarian” stance in this regard!

What I see in the Pope’s Latin liturgy edict and in so many other moves and in our President’s actions in so many things is the very common seeking of a solution to a sensed problem but applying a “band aid” instead of dealing with the real cancer deep within.  Weiss catalogs the real symptoms (and Latin is not one of them), but even she doesn’t venture  to ask the hard questions:  WHY has the Church had so much sexual abuse in its priesthood?  WHY did it tolerate slavery?  WHY did it participate in a cultural genocide of Native Americans?   And WHY did it privilege the insights and language of western theology (something Abhishiktananda wondered about and at the end of his life had pretty much given up any hope of any real change in the Church’s blindness and narrowness)?   And so, so much more….


 Being “Woke”

Franz Kafka wrote a number of very strange and unsettling stories.  Probably the most surreal and best known is “The Metamorphosis.”  Written in 1915, at the start of World War I, here is the famous opening sentence:

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into an enormous insect.”  (better translation might be “monstrous vermin”)

This opening is just as disturbing as in Orwell’s  1984:

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” 

As one commentator put it:  “This line perfectly sets up the idea that everything is not quite as it seems and manages to plunge you into an alien world without any explanation.”

What is especially striking is Gregor’s reaction and his family’s reaction to this shocking and horrible change in his identity in its external condition.    Gregor at first thinks this is a temporary condition and he can wait it out for a change.  Then, when nothing happens, he begins attempts at “living with it.”  His family is perplexed and troubled;  but they also in a sense “negotiate” with the new condition and are finally relieved when Gregor dies of starvation.  It is hard to imagine a more surreal story!

To borrow a term from modern urban slang, Gregor is “woke” but he hardly seems capable of dealing with his situation to say the least.  The real nightmare begins as he awakens.  We come up against an unsettling paradox:  to be “woke” means to be aware of the “nightmare” one is living in.   The current situation in Afghanistan seems to be one of those moments.  

But the “nightmare” did not begin just now; it goes back over 30 years.  And it involves at least 5 presidents; both Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals in our political culture.  You might say it begins with President Carter (but really it goes so much further back!).  During the Carter Administration we began to secretly arm various Afghani tribes and clans so they could fight the invading Russians.  It was the Cold War, and we wanted to mess up the Russians without getting our hands dirty.  That part worked; the Russians fled Afghanistan just as we have, but the people whom we armed evolved into the present day Taliban.   Whenever you join hands with violence, the results are never a blessing.  Fast forward to 09/11, Bin Laden hiding out in Afghanistan achieves a catastrophic terrorist attack on us.  President Bush commences military actions against Afghanistan including a full scale invasion.  Instead of treating Bin Laden and cohorts as a criminal gang and getting an international coalition to hunt them down and bring them to justice, we launched this war, and then, incredibly enough, another war on Iraq which had never been involved in any attack on us, but the war was built on a total lie.  And almost every member of Congress supported this, both Dems and Republicans (not Bernie Sanders, who was an independent at the time).  Incidentally, the vast majority of the Islamic world was shocked at the act of Bin Laden in the name of Islam, and many were prepared to help the U.S. in bringing him to justice.  There was even a Guardian story, which I can’t verify, that the Taliban were willing to turn Bin Laden over to the International Court but not into U.S. hands.  (By the way, the destabilization of Iraq contributed greatly to the formation of ISIS and that nightmare.)

So the war continued and also the delusions and lies.  Obama, who is so often portrayed as a commendable president by the liberal establishment, had his own contributions to this nightmare.  This extended quote is from a Washington Post story about the history of our involvement in Afghanistan (Craig Whitlock):

“President Barack Obama had promised to end the war, so on Dec. 28, 2014, U.S. and NATO officials held a ceremony at their headquarters in Kabul to mark the occasion. A multinational color guard paraded around. Music played. A four-star general gave a speech and solemnly furled the green flag of the U.S.-led international force that had flown since the beginning of the conflict.

In a statement, Obama called the day ‘a milestone for our country’ and said the United States was safer and more secure after 13 years of war.

‘Thanks to the extraordinary sacrifices of our men and women in uniform, our combat mission in Afghanistan is ending and the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion,’ he declared.

But for such a historical day, the military ceremony seemed strange and underwhelming. Obama issued his statement from Hawaii while he relaxed on vacation. The event took place in a gymnasium, where several dozen people sat on folding chairs. There was little mention of the enemy, let alone an instrument of surrender. Nobody cheered.

In fact, the war was nowhere near a conclusion, “responsible” or otherwise, and U.S. troops would fight and die in combat in Afghanistan for many years to come. The baldfaced claims to the contrary ranked among the most egregious deceptions and lies that U.S. leaders spread during two decades of warfare.”

Then this morning I saw this op-ed piece in the NY Times:

I Was a Marine in Afghanistan. We Sacrificed Lives For a Lie.

Well, that is one “woke” Marine!  Unfortunately there are so many military, political, and intelligence folks who still believe we were somehow “protecting” America over there.  Well, trillions of dollars later (which could have paid for everyone’s health care during the last 20 years) and thousands of American soldiers dead or injured, the Taliban are still in control!

Chris Hedges, the ultimate “woke guy,” had, as usual,  predicted this long ago.   Just a few weeks ago he was writing this:

“The debacle in Afghanistan, which will unravel into chaos with lightning speed over the next few weeks and ensure the return of the Taliban to power, is one more signpost of the end of the American empire. The two decades of combat, the one trillion dollars we spent, the 100,000 troops deployed to subdue Afghanistan, the high-tech gadgets, artificial intelligence, cyberwarfare, Reaper drones armed with Hellfire missiles and GBU-30 bombs and the Global Hawk drones with high-resolution cameras, Special Operations Command composed of elite rangers, SEALs and air commandos, black sites, torture, electronic surveillance, satellites, attack aircraft, mercenary armies, infusions of millions of dollars to buy off and bribe the local elites and train an Afghan army of 350,000 that has never exhibited the will to fight, failed to defeat a guerrilla army of 60,000 that funded itself through opium production and extortion in one of the poorest countries on earth.

Like any empire in terminal decay, no one will be held accountable for the debacle or for the other debacles in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Yemen or anywhere else. Not the generals. Not the politicians. Not the CIA and intelligence agencies. Not the diplomats. Not the obsequious courtiers in the press who serve as cheerleaders for war. Not the compliant academics and area specialists. Not the defense industry. Empires at the end are collective suicide machines. The military becomes in late empire unmanageable, unaccountable, and endlessly self-perpetuating, no matter how many fiascos, blunders and defeats it visits upon the carcass of the nation, or how much money it plunders, impoverishing the citizenry and leaving governing institutions and the physical infrastructure decayed. “

You can read the whole piece here:

And from the satirical website, The Onion, there was this headline:

Critics Warn Withdrawal From Afghanistan Paints Entirely Accurate Picture Of U.S. Government

And last, but not least, in my opinion, the most woke guy in the modern era: Gandhi.  And he knew how to respond to the nightmare.