Friday, December 3, 2010

From Watercolors to Pixels

Sketch for The Last Supper, Juda's Head by da Vinci

Many artists in the past used watercolor and pen as a sketching tool out in the field to record roughly major shadows, shapes, and line.  They would then return to the studio with their quick watercolor sketch and work up an oil painting from these sketches.  The choice of oils in the past was mainly for its durability (or permanence) and also for its flexibility as a medium.  Watercolor, on the other hand, being done on paper, was lightweight, not permanent, a rather fleeting medium.  It was also less expensive and more portable.  Hence, it was the perfect thing to take into the field to use for a quick study.  At some point, watercolor became more than just a tool; watercolors are now finished pieces, beautiful in and of themselves.  Maybe the invention of more permanent, fade-resistant colors, archival papers, and treated glass/plexiglas allowed people to display these more fragile works of art. 

So... I was thinking about this today as I was doing a digital sketch, instead of a watercolor one... *gasp*... and I... liked... it... yikes!  I never thought I would ever say that about anything digital.  Technology has so progressed that I was sketching with a stylus on a touchscreen.  Pixels are evermore portable, flexible, and in some ways, more permanent, plus infinitely pliable.  What's not to love?  I'm going to work at it until I can sketch like Master da Vinci up there with my stylus.  Will post my work later!!! 

Monday, November 22, 2010


Ship Clouds by Ciurlionis 1906
J called me a gypsy once because she said I had the "disease of moving." (Her exact words)  It isn't so, I argued at the time.  I was settled, I thought.  Yet, as I gaze out on the ocean, I feel that familiar tug.  I like leaving things behind.  I like starting over.  I like moving.  I know I complain about the packing and about having to learn all over again where the markets are or where the post office is, but the fact is that it is kind of fun.  And then getting to live in different apartments or houses, each with its own character in different neighborhoods; well, it's charming, interesting... and I feel as if I am assuming someone else' life for a little while. 

I suppose she is a little bit right.  She herself has lived in the same place for decades, hence her observation.  I keep asking myself why it is that I want to move in the first place and I cannot seem to find the reason, other than maybe I just feel restless, and that is really not even an answer.  It doesn't faze me in the least to pack it all up (or sell it all), plane ticket and passport in hand to some faraway place I've never been and calmly settle there... maybe forever this time?  It seems a bit callous.  What about roots?  What about family?  What about friendship?  Maybe it was because of my own father who left home one day, at the age of 18 (I think), and sailed the seas for years and years.  From Hong Kong, he sailed all over the world: Europe, Hawaii, America.  I admire that about him and maybe I inherited some of that restlessness too.  There is something about the sea that makes us wonder about what lies just a little beyond.  Maybe it is that we cannot comprehend the vastness of the ocean and so need to seek other lands.  Or maybe the water is a little bit hypnotic... perhaps the movement of the water awakens in our deepest subconscious a need for movement and change.  Is it possible that land-locked people prefer to stay put?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Of Operas and Language

Mary Cassatt in de Loge
What are the chances of having mentioned in conversation, twice in the same day by two different people, the composer Wagner?  I am no musician, though I've dabbled in various instruments.  And, I generally do not go around talking about composers or operas.
Yet, on that very same day, I struck up a conversation with an older fellow at the bookstore (which, I must emphasize, is quite extraordinary in and of itself as I usually have my headphones on...).  At first, it was the spiral staircase in Chambord designed by Leonardo da Vinci, then it was Wagner, the German composer and his militant style of music.  He was convinced that Wagner's music could only have come from the German language with the majority of its words in consonant endings as opposed to the Italian operas which are far more beautiful, owing, of course, to the Italian language with its vowel endings.  I have never studied Italian, but truly, thinking of the few words I know, it does seem that there are many words which end in vowels (fettucine, alfredo, spaghetti...).  The reason for Italian being the most suitable language for opera is that operas tend to need long extended notes.  Vowels lend themselves quite well to being extended indefinitely (one can sing aaaaaaaaaahhhhhh) while consonants end most abruptly and cannot be so extended.  He is absolutely correct.  Of course, when I mentioned this to a friend, she said, of course, I thought this was common knowledge.... Well, maybe to Europeans who must as a matter of course be polyglots!  But to an American, who generally isn't... I thought it was a poignant observation. Add to that, that Italian operas are more beautiful.  Besides, Americans are biased when it comes to language; we do not like to strain the language centers in our brains and thus pronounce that  the world should only have to learn English, it being the "universal" language.  I'm sure the French thought the same thing once when the French language was considered to be the educated language.  According to wikipedia, "from the 17th century to the mid 20th century, French served as the pre-eminent international language of diplomacy and international affairs as well as a lingua franca among the educated classes of Europe."  And, where will we English speakers be tomorrow?  Are there great operas in our future?  Nope, too many consonants!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

I love Vienna!!

Jacob Jordaens, Feast of the Bean King, 1640-45

I had an extraordinary amount of free time last Wednesday.  So, I sat on the beach in the morning, gazing out at the ocean in relative quiet.  Kaimana Beach is my favorite mostly because the hotel shades a good portion of the beach well until noon.  And, because most people like to sunbathe, I get the shady part nearly all to myself...  I mean, who goes to the beach to sit in the shade anyway?  But, then a woman with her son came over and we struck up a conversation.  It turned out that she was from Vienna, doing a home exchange.  I told her Vienna remains dear to my heart, being the first European city I had ever visited.  The one thing I missed the most was Viennese coffee.  Throughout all of Vienna, from the hotel to the grocery to the caf├ęs, without fail, the coffee is the best I have ever had.  It is bold, aromatic... but not like the ubiquitous Starbucks, burnt, too strong, with a horrible acid aftertaste.  After drinking Viennese coffee, I could not touch American brews for months.  And the memory of it after all these years is still there.  We were living in Boston at the time and Boston was not a Starbucks city.  It was a Dunkin' Donuts city.  The coffee is weak, sweet, and creamy... and delicious with a nice donut.  Vienna ruined it for me.  I could not drink Dunkin' Donuts for months afterward.  It tasted to me like hot water.  A little on the chemical side.  I admit, I go often to Starbucks nowadays, as well as Seattle's Best (owned by Starbucks, of course) and Coffee Bean, and I order my iced concoction or latte... but something is missing, something else.  The coffee is bland or burnt, but more than that it is also the coffee house itself.  What is missing is the Viennese decadence, the gilding, the elaborate decorated interiors, the beautiful cakes evoking a long history of cake-eating and coffee drinking on slow slow afternoons, discussing art and life with friends.  American coffee houses have become work places, second offices, not places to gather and chat.  I can't tell you the number of dirty looks I have gotten when I disturb the quiet at one particular place (which I won't mention the name of).  And, I hate it.  I hate that people use it for study and work instead of a place to socialize.  Our society has gone completely cock-eyed.  It is no longer a refuge for pure relaxed socialization, or maybe it never was?  Is it any wonder why Americans feel so isolated?  Or overworked? Or feel that having that nice beautiful cake is a "sin"?  Why, as a matter of course, people won't order an "eis caffee," which is not an ice coffee, but rather a cold coffee with two scoops of vanilla ice cream?  Hmmm.... I dream of Vienna!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

David Hockney, continued

The Orrery by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1766
Take a look at the painting on the left... does it not remind you of a photograph?  Could you not imagine the scene staged and lit?

If David Hockney's theory has merit, then there are many implications.  Take, for instance, our veneration of the Old Masters.  I never thought they used lenses and/or cameras to project the three dimensional world into two dimensions.  We were taught that they were great masters of drawing, that they could draw anything by eye-balling, and it was this skill which they built upon that allowed them to become masters of painting.  It also means that the chiaroscuro effect that we associate with many Renaissance artists, namely, Caravaggio (as Hockney points out), was simply an artifact -- that in using a lens, subjects had to be strongly lit in order to be seen, and thus cast deep shadows which were then simply captured in painting.  In other words, this rather sudden concern for realism was the consequence of a technological innovation and not a purely aesthetic movement.  Ironically, it was the invention of the photographic print that spurred artists to found the Impressionist movement.  Artists did not want to imitate a print... in a sense, they wished to remain relevant and prove that they could do something only a human being could do, and not some piece of machinery.  So, if Hockney is correct, then artists of the Renaissance were capturing the two dimensional image they saw projected onto their canvas.... they were the "developers" of the image.  They fixed the image onto paper or canvas using paint/pencil/ink, and were then replaced by a copper plate and some mercury and silver when the daguerreotype was invented.     Ironic, isn't it?  Could it be so?  Were artists simply performing a mechanical type of work?  Were they simply trained to paint... by numbers, so to speak?  Is art as expression of an aesthetic sense only a "modern" concern caused in part by inventions such as cameras and now computers?  Is art (and literature and music and dance and all other creative endeavors) all that is left to assert our humanity?  And, if so, shouldn't we prioritize these endeavors instead of pushing them aside, thinking that they are useless, frivolous pastimes for the elite?  Isn't it time to reclaim our humanity?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

David Hockney

Caravaggio, 1598-9, Judith Beheading Holofernes
I just finished David Hockney's Secret Knowledge, cover to cover. Intriguing. If you have not read it, I highly recommend it. I don't totally agree with everything he writes, but certainly, his thesis merits deeper investigation, even more than what he has already found. Basically, he claims that early in the 15th century, artists used lenses (a camera obscura) to help them draw and paint the world. And that even if they had not actually used the lens to draw, certainly they were influenced by paintings that were drawn with the aid of a lens; ultimately, paintings have a certain "look" when painted with the aid of a camera obscura. From my own experience, I can tell you, that certainly painting from a photograph is absolutely, 100% different than painting from life. There is a certain look to it that betrays its photographic lineage. It could be that when one is working from a photo, it feels as if there is no time limit... so, naturally, the hand slows down, the lines become static and too sure. Live models are fleeting. Muscles settle and move, expressions change, fruit decay, light fluctuates. But, mostly, you see differently. I see objects and can feel they are dimensional, they continue beyond what one can see, they continue to exist in time as well. Photographs are flattened and the dimension of time is lost, and it shows even when one tries to paint them. Hockney says the "look" of the camera obscura is the chiaroscuro, the dark deep shadowy background with the intense lighted foreground, all figures nearly lined up on a plane. Also, the sudden development of the fleeting expression, such as the smile. And, now when I see paintings, I cannot help but see them in this new light. I used to go often to the Norton Simon in Pasadena and think the same thing... why weren't there smiling people in paintings? Then again, a smile is a little disturbing. It would seem a little psychotic if a smile were perpetually frozen in a painting since smiles are supposed to be fleeting.  Smiles are natural expressions of joy/menace/deceit...  Why, even Pepperidge Farms had to leave some goldfish unsmiley. So, why is it that people always want to capture people smiling in photos?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Jungles and Cities

Alfred Russell Wallace

Where to travel to...? I do not have the time or money to travel to any region in the world. Not many people have that luxury, but I was thinking about where I would like to visit in the future and I just realized how much I've changed. I used to dream about walking through deep jungles, looking for beetles for my bug collection and bird watching, kind of like Alfred Russell Wallace, not Darwin, but Wallace. Here is a man after my own heart, studying spiritualism and coming up with spectacular theories about the origins of life. Yet, he is not famous the way Darwin was. Why is that? Was it because of his interest in spiritualism? Did the scientific community reject his work because they thought he was just a bit loony? It is as if he were swept under the rug and became a mere footnote in the history of science. But... anyway, I admired Alfred Russell Wallace and thought I should like to travel as he did, through the jungles of the Amazon and through the Malay archipelago, coming up with all-encompassing theories about life. Certainly, I think that is where science fails today. It is completely disjointed and fragmented. No longer are scientists supposed to even think about theories. They are supposed to work on one minute problem for their entire career... for instance, one might spend one's life studying metabolic rates of emperor penguins or tortoises... And, this is problematic in the sense that one cannot see the forest for the trees. But that is exactly what modern man has become, a specialist in the worst sense, completely missing out on the entire problem because he is so focused on one small minute aspect of this entire universe.

What was I saying.... yes, I just figured that I no longer have the willingness to go through jungles. Suddenly, I think I can no longer endure such things as mosquitoes or humidity. Suddenly, visiting cities sounds more than attractive and being in a cool place is bliss. And, how in the world did this happen? What is it about getting older that makes me less willing to traipse through a jungle? Theoretically, I would love to visit Thailand or Bali or Vietnam, but every time I look at a map, my mind wanders to the cities of Europe where it is cooler and I can get a cup of coffee in an over-priced cafe in the middle of a busy sidewalk. I dream of walking through manicured gardens, looking at marble statues. But... then, what of the wild places? Have they fallen away to an irretrievable past?

Saturday, June 26, 2010


Divination board, Yoruba peoples, possibly Owo region, Nigeria, Late 19th to early 20th century, Wood
According to Wikimedia, "For serious problems, the Yoruba go to an ifa diviner to consult Orunmila, the god of fate. A numerical pattern is obtained and recorded on the divination board. The diviner then recites the verses related to the numerical pattern." Two things. First, that in many cultures, there is the link between numbers and destiny (for example, numerology, birth dates in astrology, certain numbers being cursed or divine, etc.) Second is the pattern. And is that not what physics seeks to find? Patterns? Formulas to predict an action, a mathematical relation to things in the universe. And that is essentially what physics has always sought to predict or divine: the future. I wish someone had put it to me that way years ago. I think I might have chosen to become a physicist. Instead, we were just taught the inane... parts of equations, waves, particles, etc., but never a mention of the real goal, the true reason behind it all. You see, even though we claim to be "modern," and we like to think that what divides us from periods in the past which were fraught with superstitious behavior, the fact is, we are all still searching for the same thing as someone a thousand years ago, asking the same questions. Where does our future lie? Our solution is to go about it in a scientific fashion. We will use those same numbers, but now we plug them into new equations and try to find new patterns. We have not changed all that much, have we? We think that if only we could determine all the variables, then we would finally not be troubled anymore about what lay ahead. But then, where would be the surprise, the fun?

It's a funny thing, in years past, I would imagine something or think, wouldn't it be funny if... and then maybe a little later, that exact thing would happen. It seems strange. When I was about ten, I used to play with the globe in my father's study and I would spin it around and think about the countries in the world. The countries were colored in yellow, pink, purple, and orange. I always thought the smaller countries looked more inviting than the larger ones. They seemed as if they would be more friendly places to visit because you could probably walk around them easily. (In those days, I had also a fantasy of walking everywhere. I even thought it would be fun to be a walking mail person because then I would get to walk in the sunshine and say hello to everyone instead of sitting in an office under florescent lights. I would be outside in the middle of the day while everyone else was locked away at work.) Anyway, the smaller countries seemed more walkable and I wanted to visit these little places and walk around picking wildflowers. One day, I was just spinning the globe and I thought, I'm going to stop the globe and wherever my finger lands, I am going to live there when I grow up. I landed in Hawaii. And, years later, here I am.

Then, years and years ago, one odd day, I was talking to my friend R-- and we were talking about what we would do with our lives and I said, if only I could paint, then I wouldn't have to get a real job... (what a goal..!!)

So... what I mean is, do we make these things happen? I'm certainly not a planner. I don't plan out my life very well at all. In fact, I would say, life happens, opportunities come up, people... arrive. Is that the way of the world? Or is this at some level one's subconscious driving our decisions, however small, towards some direction that we may have wished for long ago?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Teaching, A Most Noble Endeavor... or not.

A few months ago, I had considered teaching art on the side, to fill the time when things were slow. So, I told J about it. And she said, well, DON'T do it. Just don't do it. O...K.... and why would that be? She said that people just sign up for "art" lessons so they don't have to buy your work. What??? Yes, apparently, our friend G-- used to offer lessons to these older women and they would just copy what he painted. Well, they didn't copy it. They would just sort of copy it and then he would "fix" it and voila, by the end of several lessons, they would have a genuine G-- painting. They would hang it up in their homes, tell their friends about it being a G-- painting, and probably brag that they paid thousands for it at the gallery. What a load of... All this, just $20 a class!! Personally, I think he even undercharged them for the class, but it was a way to keep himself busy while he was trying to establish himself. See how artists are exploited? There is just no justice. I see all the time posts for the "opportunity to build your portfolio" which should read "artists are saps and should give their work away for nothing."

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Lines of Fate

Destiny by John William Waterhouse

I have a weakness for things related to the supernatural. Maybe it's not healthy, maybe it's wrong, maybe it's superstitious... or maybe it's because it's real. I was reading Jung the other day and in one of his essays, he told of this "vision" that deeply disturbed him:

"In October, while I was alone on a journey, I was suddenly seized by an overpowering vision: I saw a monstrous flood covering all the northern and low lying lands between the north sea and the Alps. When it came up to Switzerland I saw that the mountains grew higher and higher to protect our country. I realised that a frightful catastrophe was in progress. I saw the mighty yellow waves, the floating rubble of civilisation, and the drowned bodies of uncounted thousands. Then the whole sea turned to blood . . . two weeks passed; then the vision recurred . . . even more vividly than before, and the blood was more emphasised. An inner voice spoke. "Look at it well; it is wholly real and it will be so. You cannot doubt it." Soon afterwards [June 1914] I had a thrice repeated dream that in the middle of summer an Arctic cold wave descended and turned the land to ice . . . the entire region totally deserted by human beings. All living things were killed by frost."

This vision he had was in October of 1913, World War I broke out in August 1914. When war broke out, he finally realized that this dream was a foretelling of this event, of the death of millions of people. He thus conceives of this idea of the "collective unconscious," and that mankind is capable of accessing this connection through dreams. BUT... why does he not then go further and say that these types of dreams are actual prophecies? What I mean is, if people can have prophetic visions, then it follows that future events are already set to occur, that the future is already fated. This, of course, follows a linear view of time, that there exists a past, a present, and a future (as an aside, most language has evolved along this line of thought). However, if we believe in the changeability of the future, then we would have to accept the version of the universe that is split into an infinite number of universes, otherwise known as multiverses or metaverses. By exercising free will and choosing one path over another, there suddenly exists another existence. And, each choice, compounded with millions upon millions of souls... Still, even in this scenario, the existence of prophetic dreams is possible. For instance, what if it were possible to see sometimes these various universes; what if there are people amongst us that possess this gift? The unfortunate thing is that in our modern world, we do not allow for such things. We are comfortable with just one possibility, but alas, one that is not fated. We want to think we are not destined to live out life along a certain path, yet we are also not willing to accept the existence of the multiverse. These dreams and prophecies, even lines of fate inscribed on the hand are deemed the ravings of madmen. Maybe that is why Jung came up with the collective unconscious, because the collective unconscious deals with the present condition of mankind as a whole and not the existence of a predetermined (or completely infinite pre-existing) future... avoiding altogether opening this can of worms.

Monday, March 15, 2010

I'm Not Really a Conspiracist.

One thing that we need to grasp is the duality of this world. What I mean is that as much as we may wish it, we cannot have good without evil....

I wrote this sentence about a month ago and I've lost my train of thought, but here it is, here it is... the world as we live it is a bunch of lies. Like I've said before, I'm not really a conspiracy theorist. I don't really believe that everything is a conspiracy, but if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, well, damn it, then it IS a duck. Take for instance what it means when one says American Dream. One would picture a house, a family consisting of a young couple, 2.5 kids, and a dog, preferably golden retriever (certainly not a pit bull), nice manicured lawn, etc. AND, it is not just any house, but it is a Cape Cod. Now, what the hell is a Cape Cod? Well, let me tell you. It is the house that every single five year old draws when you tell him/her to draw a house. All across this United States, ask ANY child to draw a house and you will get a Cape Cod. So ingrained is this American ideal that all children (city children, country children, California children, Hawaii children, and of course New England children) will draw the same freaking house. If you don't think that is in any way bizarre... It also happens to be the house that was miraculously mass-produced in the late 1940's in New York. Of course, it wasn't invented back then (it was actually brought over from England in the 17th century), no, but it was the first house that allowed the "masses" (meaning all of the people who really had no chance in hell of ever becoming a home-owner unless through government intervention via FHA or VA) to become homeowners and THUS to BECOME middle class. By the very definition of homeownership, one enters the middle class. Think about this... the government actually created a middle class by allowing mass production of housing. It spawned satellite industries (such as real estate companies, mortgage lenders, home inspectors, pest control companies, etc.) and it created an unsustainable consumer-driven economy. AND, we are ALL supposed to strive towards this ONE goal. Why? I think it is so that we become so preoccupied with the attainment of all of these material things that we cease to think. When one has a house and garden and "toys," there is no anger, no injustice to right, no rebellion, no revolution. We have become mere drones. Then years pass, nothing significant is done with one's life and people only then may wonder, what was it all about anyway? Oh, but wait, the government doesn't want you to think.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Nature of Man

Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Sin of Adam and Eve, The Fall of Man, Fresco at the Vatican, Sistine Chapel
But then, what exactly is evil? Is it really so easy and clear to define? Or is it simply a point of view? Evil is intentional. After all, predators kill prey for food, but we could never rightly say they are evil. Are humans inherently good or evil? Is evil made or born? Is good made or born? According to the Chinese philosopher, Wang Yang Ming, man is inherently good. He says, "when it [the mind] sees a child fall into a well it naturally knows what commiseration is. This is intuitive knowledge of good, and is not attained through external investigation. If the thing manifested emanates from the intuitive faculty, it is the more free from the obscuration of selfish purpose. This is what is meant by saying that the mind is filled with commiseration, and that love cannot be exhausted. . . ."

But, when we compare this philosophy to Christian theology, it is the complete opposite... man is a sinner because of original sin. Man is corrupt, selfish, and depraved, saved only by divine Grace.

What is interesting is that both philosophies (religion, philosophy, so closely linked...can we not call one the other and the other one?) speak of the passions of men. In Eastern thought, man is born whole, good, upright then corrupted by passions (from Wang Yang Ming):

"The mind is one. In case it has not been corrupted by the passions of men, it is called an upright mind. If corrupted by human aims and passions, it is called a selfish mind. When a selfish mind is rectified it is an upright mind; and when an upright mind loses its rightness it becomes a selfish mind. Originally there were not two minds. A selfish mind is due to selfish desire; an upright mind is natural law (is true to nature). . . .Someone said "All men have natural endowment (mind), and the mind is the embodiment of heaven-given principles (natural law). Why then do some devote themselves to virtue and others to vice? The mind of the evil man has lost its original nature. . . .There are no crises and problems beyond those of passion and change. Are not pleasure, anger, sorrow, and joy passions of men? Seeing, hearing, talking, working, wealth and honor, poverty and lowliness, sorrow and difficulty, death and life, all are vicissitudes of life. All are included in the passions and feelings of men. These need only to be in a state of perfect equilibrium and harmony, which, in turn, depends upon being watchful over one's self. . . ."

So accordingly, evil is the result of not being watchful over one's self, yielding to the temptations that so readily present themselves in life whereas in Christian thought, evil is something we are born with and have to remove from our very souls by divine Grace... divine intervention?... that we will absolutely be doomed to evil... it's such a pessimistic view.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Good vs Evil

Peter Paul Rubens, 1618, Head of Medusa

Nearly an entire month has passed in the blink of an eye; I did not mean to neglect writing, but some things needed addressing, dotted my i's and crossed my t's, all that good stuff that makes up life. I'm trying not to be sarcastic, though it's difficult not to be. I've been thinking about good versus evil. J has kept two constant friends in her life, through decades of turmoil, through thick and thin. She admits to not being able to philosophize with either, to not really confiding in either, but they've been her friends now for decades. Her oldest friend, let's call her Bambi, is pure innocence, naive today as the day she was born... happy-go-lucky in life, not particularly well-to-do. Then there is her other long-time friend, let's call her Medusa. Medusa has been married at least six times (all for money), was at one point a "madame," and is now quite wealthy from her dead husbands. Based on this, J believes that evil wins out in the end; all the scheming and plotting of Medusa, after all, has netted her a fortune, while the carefree, good-hearted Bambi lives a most ordinary life. But, this is where we disagree. From my point of view, I think Medusa is most miserable. She spent her entire life, deceiving people, telling lie upon lie until she can no longer recognize truth from fiction... certainly there must be some psychosis there? She trusts no one, not even her own children. She desires adoration from the "common people." She desires things and has spent her entire life feeling as if it were never enough... maybe just a little more. Bambi, on the other hand, lives in complete bliss. Life takes care of her; she wants nothing and so never feels that she needs anything. She has spent her entire life... well, happy, I suppose. Most people, of course, are neither extremes. I asked J why she is friends with either one since she confides in neither. She says she keeps Medusa around to remind her who not to be and Bambi... ignorance is bliss.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Silkworms, continued.

Kitagawa Utamaro, Ukiyo e, silkworm moths

In this day and age, we take it for granted that we can hop on a plane and be in another country in less than a day. Even with all the hassles of flying, it's really no big deal anymore. But, back in the day... back in the day... (no, I'm not going to talk about walking ten miles to school, through the snow...) I mean, back in the time of Lafcadio Hearn, before there were airplanes, before the famous first flight of the Wright brothers, the only way to really get around the world was by ship. And, it wasn't a pleasant journey. One could be overrun by pirates, the ship could be lost at sea, tossed in storms, sunk; it was a rather dangerous way to travel. So, it's particularly remarkable, I think, when someone from the late 19th century went from Europe to America, and then finally settled in Japan. And, then to top it all off, he learned the language and customs and settled down to write and share it with the Western world. Language is not an easy thing. Learning basic phrases for travel is easy, but actually learning a language and the nuances and cultural references take a lifetime. His thoughts on Buddhism as compared to the Judeo-Christian traditions stemmed from an old Chinese proverb. He writes, "I WAS puzzled by the phrase, " silkworm-moth eyebrow," in an old Japanese, or rather Chinese proverb : — The silkworm-moth eyebrow of a woman is the axe that cuts down the wisdom of man. So I went to my friend Niimi, who keeps silkworms, to ask for an explanation." From here, he goes with his friend to see the silkworms and eventually he comes to his musings:

"First of all, I found myself thinking about a
delightful revery by M. Anatole France, in which
he says that if he had been the Demiurge, he
would have put youth at the end of life instead
of at the beginning, and would have otherwise so
ordered matters that every human being should
have three stages of development, somewhat cor-
responding to those of the lepidoptera. Then it
occurred to me that this fantasy was in substance
scarcely more than the delicate modification of a
most ancient doctrine, common to nearly all the
higher forms of religion.

Western faiths especially teach that our life on
earth is a larval state of greedy helplessness, and
that death is a pupa-sleep out of which we should
soar into everlasting light. They tell us that
during its sentient existence, the outer body
should be thought of only as a kind of caterpil-
lar, and thereafter as a chrysalis; — and they
aver that we lose or gain, according to our be-
havior as larvae, the power to develop wings
under the mortal wrapping. Also they tell us
not to trouble ourselves about the fact that we
see no Psyche-imago detach itself from the broken
cocoon : this lack of visual evidence signifies
nothing, because we have only the purblind vision
of grubs. Our eyes are but half-evolved. Do
not whole scales of colors invisibly exist above
and below the limits of our retinal sensibility?
Even so the butterfly-man exists, — although, as
a matter of course, we cannot see him.

But what would become of this human imago
in a state of perfect bliss? From the evolutional
point of view the question has interest; and its
obvious answer was suggested to me by the history
of those silkworms, — which have been
domesticated for only a few thousand years. Consider
the result of our celestial domestication for — let
us say — several millions of years : I mean the
final consequence, to the wishers, of being able to
gratify every wish at will.

Those silkworms have all that they wish for, —
even considerably more. Their wants, though
very simple, are fundamentally identical with the
necessities of mankind, — food, shelter, warmth,
safety, and comfort. Our endless social struggle
is mainly for these things. Our dream of heaven
is the dream of obtaining them free of cost in
pain; and the condition of those silkworms is the
realization, in a small way, of our imagined
Paradise. (I am not considering the fact that a vast
majority of the worms are predestined to torment
and the second death; for my time is of heaven,
not of lost souls. I am speaking of the elect —
those worms preordained to salvation and rebirth.)
Probably they can feel only very weak sensations:
they are certainly incapable of prayer. But if
they were able to pray, they could not ask for
anything more than they already receive from
the youth who feeds and tends them. He is their
providence, — a god of whose existence they can
be aware in only the vaguest possible way, but
just such a god as they require. And we should
foolishly deem ourselves fortunate to be equally
well cared-for in proportion to our more complex
wants. Do not our common forms of prayer
prove our desire for like attention?' Is not the
assertion of our "need of divine love" an
involuntary confession that we wish to be treated
like silkworms, — to live without pain by the help
of gods? Yet if the gods were to treat us as we
want, we should presently afford fresh evidence,
— in the way of what is called " the evidence from
degeneration," — that the great evolutional law is
far above the gods.

An early stage of that degeneration would be
represented by total incapacity to help ourselves;
— then we should begin to lose the use of our
higher sense-organs; — later on, the brain would
shrink to a vanishing pin-point of matter; — still
later we should dwindle into mere amorphous
sacs, mere blind stomachs. Such would be the
physical consequence of that kind of divine love
which we so lazily wish for. The longing for
perpetual bliss in perpetual peace might well seem
a malevolent inspiration from the Lords of Death
and Darkness. All life that feels and thinks has
been, and can continue to be, only as the product
of struggle and pain, — only as the outcome of
endless battle with the Powers of the Universe.
And cosmic law is uncompromising. Whatever
organ ceases to know pain, — whatever faculty
ceases to be used under the stimulus of pain, —
must also cease to exist. Let pain and its effort
be suspended, and life must shrink back, first
into protoplasmic shapelessness, thereafter into

Buddhism —which, in its own grand way, is a
doctrine of evolution — rationally proclaims its
heaven but a higher stage of development through
pain, and teaches that even in paradise the
cessation of effort produces degradation. With equal
reasonableness it declares that the capacity for
pain in the superhuman world increases always
in proportion to the capacity for pleasure. (There
is little fault to be found with this teaching
from a scientific standpoint, — since we know
that higher evolution must involve an increase
of sensitivity to pain.) In the Heavens of
Desire, says the Shobo-nen-jo-kyo, the pain of death
is so great that all the agonies of all the hells
united could equal but one-sixteenth part of such

The foregoing comparison is unnecessarily
strong; but the Buddhist teaching about heaven
is in substance eminently logical. The suppression
of pain — mental or physical, — in any conceivable
state of sentient existence, would necessarily
involve the suppression also of pleasure; — and
certainly all progress, whether moral or material,
depends upon the power to meet and to master
pain. In a silkworm-paradise such as our mundane
instincts lead us to desire, the seraph freed from the
necessity of toil, and able to satisfy his every want
at will, would lose his wings at last, and sink back
to the condition of a grub. . . . "

In Ghostly Japan by Lafcadio Hearn

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Lafcadio Hearn

Lafcadio Hearn was an extraordinary man with an extraordinary mind. The wikipedia entry briefly summarizes his various endeavors as a journalist, writer, and thinker (I actually did not know about his collection of Creole recipes). However, he is best known for his writings on Japan, dealing mostly with the supernatural and religious aspects of Japan. You may have seen the collection of short stories that was made into the 1965 film Kwaidan. In Ghostly Japan, he writes about myths and legends of Japan, many of which stem from a mixture of Buddhism and Shinto. One particularly curious piece was his own musings on Western and Eastern religion. He conjectures that a belief in heavenly paradise replete with a divine, benevolent being leads human beings to eventually succumb to the fate of the domesticated silkworm whereas a life based on karmic principles seeks to constantly evolve for better or worse. It is a most fitting synopsis.