Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Mediocrity: meanness and indifference

"Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself, but talent instantly recognizes genius."
       ~Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

"But because thou art Lukewarm and neither hot nor cold, I will begin to vomit thee out of my mouth."
      ~Revelation 3:16

After reading Jenna's post in this round of our discussion, I am certain we are working from different understandings with regard to mediocrity.  I checked to be certain that my definition is a legitimate one, not merely my own reactions and responses to Kierkegaard and Christ in their united disgust with the mediocre, and my little dictionary confirmed me when it provided synonyms such as "indifferent," "mean," and "non-person." I"m comforted. Especially as this post is written quickly, sandwhiched between a late-morning nap and strawberry canning with moja Matka, who is up anticipating the birth of her first grandchild.

Mediocrity in my understanding is the failiure of the person to be a person, to be an active participant in his own life. It is the pursuit of the "good enough" and not the Good - attempting Purgatory, not Heaven, and in doing so, failing to reach either. Mediocrity fails to create Art because it is indifferent to Beauty, and uninterested in effort - it lacks not only talent but desire. Rilke describes the mediocre life, when he writes that being alive and being awake are acts not states, and it is necessary to do them,  not simply fall into them. The state of not being dead, but not acting as a person alive is the state of the mediocre. He refuses to chose, to become either hot or cold, and in the end is "spit out," having been "neither one of the living nor one of the dead." (Rilke). Because of this, because mediocrity is alway comfortable in it's indifference, it is like Acedia, the noonday demon that Kathleen Norris describes so well. It sucks the life and the passion from man and sinks him into despair and inhumanity, and "mediocrity is always guilty" (Kierkegaard) of forming a sort of self-deception in the person, keeping him from seeing anything higher than himself.

Mediocrity is a temptation at various times, for the artist, and for the person. In life, mediocrity tempts us to fulfill the law without love, to rest in the feeling that we are better than some, and worse than others - just an ordinary, everyday person, with no need to pursue perfection. In art, it produces similar results: I'm good enough, I paint nice flowers, people like them, why work for more? It is an attitude, not a measure of skill.

If I have time this week, I may come back to this. Read and think and write again - because I am spending so much time right now looking at my clock and knowing I need to rush off again.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

"Work is the curse of the drinking classes."
      ~Oscar Wilde

I have been meaning to make my vodkas this month. Ideally, I will do it before the baptism, as vodka is such a celebratory drink, and I would like to be able to celebrate properly. I don't distill vodka - that would take too much time, and too much skill - I merely infuse it with flavor: lime, orange, and black tea are easy favorites. I may try pepper at some point, though it would seem to fit better with cold weather. Given a month, I can make Krupnik - a honey, spice vodka especially popular at Easter. I don't have a month though.

We have silver vodka cups that need polishing, and a good number of shot glasses that show the colors well. I'm looking forward to pulling them out again and passing them around in joy.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

"I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day."
       ~Vincent Van Gogh

Tomorrow is the feast of St. John the Baptist. Tonight is noc Kupaly, and if you go out at midnight to wander in the woods, it's possible to see the fern flower which opens the eyes of the finder to the hidden world of magic and fairy. 

The fern flower blooms only at midnight on St. John's Eve, and only rarely then. If a wanderer is lucky enough to see it, she must never let her attention be turned. All the evil beings of the forest gather around her, gibbering and whining, to catch her notice, frighten her, and cause the flower to wither before it blooms: cursing the viewer, and leaving her defenseless against the demons that surround her.

If she can wait with the flower as it opens - glowing in it's own red light - the finder will be blessed by it with all the good things the fairy-world can give: wealth, luck, discernment, and protection against witches, demons, and danger. The finder is also granted the ability to see the future in the fires that burn on noc Kupaly.  She can ask her questions and watch as the flames dance out the story of the years ahead.

I won't be hunting for the flower this year, though I can imagine finding it, blooming beneath our birches, where our three ghosts stay. But I don't know if it could keep my attention from the darkness all around. I'm afraid I would look at the evil ones, and right now, feeling the burden of my baby's weight, I worry about cursing the child before birth. Besides, I can see my future already - stretching out before me like a great lake of joy. I have no questions for the Kupaly fire this year.

The Artist as Other

"If your everyday life seems poor, don't blame it; blame yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth it's riches; for the creator there is no poverty and no indifferent place."

~Rainer Maria Rilke

In her most recent post, Jenna mentions that "You can have meaning without beauty..but beauty always speaks. It haunts and comforts.." It is a point I like, and one I can agree with. Beauty does speak, it triumphs, and this is the "ancient, communal role" (Kathleen Norris) of the artist - to delve deep into the experiences of his world and birth beauty, to "call forth" the riches of everyday. 

In so many ways, the role of the artist is similar to the role of the prophet, a "necessary other" existing and creating, not in "untrammeled freedom" but in an "exacting form of discipline" (Kathleen Norris) that submits the Artist to the demands of his vocation and demands from him not only talent, but devotion and commitment as well. It is a communal role, a social role - creating the "lie that tells the truth" (Picasso) and presenting the world as it really is, in all it's intimacy, passion, failure, and ultimate, glorious beauty. That is why, when the artist fails to call forth the riches of his world, when he calls his world poor, empty, and uninspiring, he fails to create art. I agree completely with Jenna that beauty can be found in the simple and humble aspects of everyday life, but it is the artist's ability to become intimate with these things, to nurture them into fruition that creates art - the process of "seeing, knowing again, and being welcomed" (Rilke).

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

"the Icons are whispering to you
they're just old men, like on the benches in the park
except their balding spots are
glistening with gold."

~Regina Spektor

 In an attempt to answer a side question of Mr. Pond's without derailing the week's topic, I thought I'd attempt to explain Art in relation to Icons. Icons are not Art. When we treat our Icons as art, we diminish their role in our lives. Icons are a presence, the opportunity for the Saint to enter our lives in a fuller way than a statue or "religious image". That is why we greet our Icons, kiss them, and leave them uncovered to watch with us in the sorrows of Holy Week. Art is "a lie that tells the truth." as Picasso and many others have said, which is why men and Icons, no matter how beautiful, are never "Art" though they may be "artistic" and are certianly beautiful.

It is sometimes hard to develope a taste for the beauty of Icons: the living eyes that follow us throughout the day, the colors and gestures that mean more than they appear to, Icons are something more than religious art and it is by coming to know them, as we know our friends - being intimate with them as we are intimate with each other, that we can develope a true understand of who and what they really are.

Monday, June 20, 2011

I have more gardening to do. I never really thought about
 the effort required to carve a garden from a forest floor.
 It involves a good deal more work than I would like.
But progress has been made, and in this late season,
we aren't the last to put in our seedlings and watch them grow.

The baby loves my husband's music almost as much as I do. Luba
is the only one who would rather nudge his hand away and sniff
at the strings than listen. She has no ear for music, obviously.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


"Once you label me, you negate me."
     ~Soren Kierkegaard

It's nice, actually, to be taking a break this week from the discussion that's been going on between Jenna St. Hilaire, Mr. Pond, and myself. I'm glad to have this week to simply be, and to reflect on the discussion that's happened so far. She left for the week asking "What is beauty?" and that is something, perhaps that we ought to have settled on at first, it might have clarified our earlier discussions, it might have removed some of the uncertainly that led to disagreement.

What is Beauty? Simply speaking, Beauty is the visible form of the Good.

Mr. Pond, who seems to be under some illusions about my philosophical ideals will be somewhat surprised to learn that this definition is not essentially Platonic, but Catholic (in both senses of the word). While there are aspects of Plato in Catholic thought, Plato is not the essential, he is absorbed or dismissed according to his ability to fall in with what is understood to be True. Plato has lovely ideas, but he's been eclipsed. The tendency to say, this is Platonic thought, and respond to it as such makes true discussion impossible, it is a response to an impression from the writing, not what is actually written.

I am impressed so far in this discussion with the continual search for agreement in both Jenna and Mr. Pond. They obviously enjoy the discovery of common ground, and the building up of that common ground until it becomes a beautiful place, a haven against disagreement. Agreements are lovely, and in this past discussion, Mr. Pond has gone to great lengths to attempt a reconciliation between Jenna and my definitions of art. He's decided that it is entirely a semantics disagreement, due in part to my Platonism I'm sure. But not being a Platonist, and not longing for agreement at the expense of my own ideals, I have to reject his efforts. If art is  merely communication, if every bit of banality and ugliness is on some level, art, then art itself has no inherent value, no meaning, and no purpose. It does nothing to raise up man, it is a non-definition. Jenna's inclusive concept of art is in complete opposition to my own, and, by being too inclusive, fails to give non-art communications an opportunity to shine in their own sphere. Defining a Taylor Swift song, or a "penny-dreadful" book as art instantly relegates it to the level of "bad art," while allowing it to be itself: a fun pop-song, or badly-written but enjoyable commercial fiction, gives it the opportunity to succeed on it's own level.

Jenna and Mr. Pond will have to forgive me for being less than determined to agree than they. I've never been particularly uncomfortable with disagreement - especially written out disagreements, that can be edited, read, reread, and continually developed. I am not disagreeing for the sake of disagreement, but in some sense, out of a sense of self-preservation: If I agree with Jenna's terminology, I am agreeing that my artistic vocation is meaningless and non-existent, for if everything anyone ever says, writes, or does falls under the umbrella of art, then the term "artist" is as meaningless and empty as the term "art." I can't accept that, and in an attempt to form an agreement, I doubt either of them want me to agree with that idea, though it comes naturally out of Jenna's definition.

It's nice having a break in the discussion, a chance to look back and re-collect my ideas, to bring out some background thoughts that have been collecting in my mind these past few weeks. I'm looking forward to picking up the discussion again next week, with mediocrity and the abundance of Kierkegaard quotes that go with that issue. No one discusses mediocrity like Kierkegaard, except maybe Christ. Maybe.

Monday, June 13, 2011

One of my dearest friends was married this past weekend. I wasn't able to be in her wedding: our baby is due within the month; but her marriage made my thoughts return again and again to my own wedding and the overwhelmingly joyful marriage we've been blessed with ever since.

This past weekend I read through my husband's letters from our dating days, when we lived a full day's drive from each other and rarely used the phone. Neither of us enjoys calling people, so our conversations took place, more often than not, on paper, or in person. I'm grateful for that. In person, conversations are easier to remember than over the phone, and letters last. I have them all now, wrapped in twine and tucked away in my desk. In our case, letters encouraged a deeper level of communication than phone conversation could have, which allowed us to enter marriage really knowing each other.  My friend's relationship has been much different - every relationship is - but I look forward to seeing it lived out as joyfully, and as full of love.

Friday, June 10, 2011

"Simplicity is completely absorbed in
listening to what it hears."
~Thomas Merton

 Recently my days have been absorbed in listening, and somehow, there is always a good deal of coffee involved in really listening to people. I'm trying to keep the listening going, while keeping the coffee to a minimum. I wonder how often, when we think we're listening, we're really only waiting for key words that can serve as an opening for our own thoughts. I've noticed this only the radio a lot recently. We have call in shows, and so often the caller has barely finished his question when the response comes - ready made, to a question that was never asked. 

I know I do this, marriage is helping me change, my husband doesn't let my deafness pass unnoticed, and country-living has helped, there is so much to really listen to! In our apartment, there were sounds to block out, the neighbors arguing, the sirens rushing by daily, the cars, and the collective noise of the place. Out on the land there are birds to hear, peeping frogs, and rustling beeches. I don't hear too much, and watching Luba, I'm learning to enjoy listening.  She loves all the sounds: chickens, owls, thunder, wind - they all make her little ears go up and bring the wrinkles out on her face. It looks like an overwhelming desire to know.  It makes me happy to see it, and happy to join her in deep listening.  

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Art: a response in the discussion with Jenna St. Hilaire and Mr. Pond

"Oh tell us, Poet, what do you do? ~ I Praise.

But the dark, the deadly, the desperate ways,

How do you endure them ~ how bear them? ~

I Praise."

   ~Rainer Maria Rilke

We are discussing Art. What is art, what is non-art. Can there be a created thing that fails to be art? Can there be a thing that has so completely lost it's beauty, it's truth, it's goodness that it is in no way Art, that it crumbles and will not endure? As I understand her, Jenna is saying that there is no such thing - all our communications, banal to beautiful, blessings to curses - all are art.  I can't agree. 

I'd like to be mistaken, I'd like her to mean that all of life has the potential to call forth Art, that for the artist, the smallest thing has riches that can brought to light. I would agree. It is the way in which we fling ourselves into experience, into the light and darkness of life that makes the experience artistic, the ability to "say them more intensely than the Things themselves ever dreamed of existing" that turns the Thing to art: absorbing, nourishing, growing, and then making the experience anew - so that it touches beauty and endures- which makes Art.

It is only for God that every communication is Art, and that is because, for Him, all of eternity is "a great recognizing, seeing-again, and being welcomed." All of life is one great intimacy, and in all His works runs the beauty of the Divine imagination. Some of His art fails, because it is living art, with a will of it's own, and runs from it's beauty, but the Artist has not failed to make art. For us it is different, our communications fail, we fail. We are not intimate enough, with ourselves and with our world to call forth it's beauty. When we are able to take an experience and make it intense, alive, and enduring, then we make art; but not all of our words are living, and none are the Word: none are Beauty incarnate, we have no certainty that what we produce is Art.

John Paul II reminds us that "not all are called to be artists," though all are called to craft their lives in imitation of Christ, there is a distinction. The artist is not only called to, but also given the gift of an ability to "respond to the demands of art, and faithfully to accept art's dictates." (Letter to Artists). That art makes demands which must be accepted by the artist, enforces the fact that art is more than a passive thing - nothing more than communication, demanding nothing: not talent, not discipline, not devotion from the artist. Communication is an essential aspect of Art, but not the only aspect. Objective beauty is also an essential aspect of art, and if beauty, the "visible form of the good" cannot be found, the work is not art, for "beauty is the vocation bestowed on [the artist] by the Creator" (LtA).

In so many ways, art is like faith, "a path to the inmost reality of man and of the world" (LtA); it opens the door to faith. Through beauty it reveals truth, and without both truth and beauty, art cannot exist. It would be wrong to assume that all communications, even those lacking both beauty and truth could be art in anyway, it does a disservice to truth, and to the human soul, which longs to be nourished on a beauty that "will save the world" (Dostoevsky).  It inserts relativism into the understanding of art, a relativism which, by refusing to distinguish between art and non-art, steals away all the value and meaning of art, by making it passive, a simple act of existence - people must communicate - instead of what it is "a battle for Life" (Rilke).

Monday, June 6, 2011

"Let life happen to you. Believe me: life is in the right, always."
~Rainer Maria Rilke
After the Ascension I am with the apostles, watching the sky, and waiting. Trying to avoid living in anticipation, trying to make each day new. Christ has borrowed my beads, I'll take them back again when the Spirit comes, on Pentecost and my table has a fresh image, the Trinity Icon; or when the baby comes, and I give all my saints flowers.

Cleaning house is not really anticipation, so much as an attempt to make each day beautiful. I can't stop the dirt from creeping in, or the spiders I won't kill from making webs on the rafters. I brush down the webs and wash away the dirt, only to see them gather back again. Only the dishes are a battle, the rest is joy.

Last night I thought over all the things we're lacking still: undone cradle, unplanted tomatoes, packed away diapers and I worried. But my husband was sleeping easily, and calm is contagious. I wrapped myself in his and dreamt of happy things, waking only twice in the night to listen to coyotes and check the path of the stars.

When we have friends out again, my wheel is coming out from the shed. I can't help move it, but my husband and a friend could carry it down the road and set it on level ground. I can still throw, and I look forward to throwing again, in the sunlight. I look forward to making things grow beneath my hands.

Our back garden is a joy to see, we're eating baby spinach and radish greens. We're watching beet greens grown, and helping the peas cling to their gate. Our herbs are small and flavorful, our beans are climbing. It feels sustaining, in a small way, to have a garden growing.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Beyond Boys and Girls: continuing the discussion with Jenna St. Hilaire and Mr. Pond

"I find myself in a world where everybody has his compartment, puts you in yours, shuts the door and departs."
~Flannery O' Connor

I had a different post prepared originally, but Jenna's thoughts on male and female views in writing gave me a good deal to think about and respond to, so I'm going to run my mouth a bit instead. She makes three points which particularly require a closer look: The first, that men are uncomfortable discussing the bodily experiences of women, such as menstruation, barrenness, and childbirth; the second, that men are more likely to reject a book for flaw which women will gloss over in the pursuit of something to love in the story; and finally, that men deal with broader themes, while women deal in the intimate and personal.

I do actually agree with her on some level in the first point. Men are often uncomfortable discussing women's experiences in the bodily sense. But as Jenna points out from her own experience, so are many women. This is less of a gender issue than an issue we have as a culture with our own physicality. The world is so clean, so sanitized - our bodies and their less-than-attractive elements are kept out of sight and out of mind. We are so distant from our own bodies that it's no wonder we don't know anymore how to discuss our own bodies without discomfort. Men and women both struggle with discussing bodily experiences, there is a tendency to become either too clinical or too "silly" - hiding embarrassment behind jokes or technicalities. If women are too uncomfortable to be open about their experiences, men can't write with any understanding of those experiences - nor can women, because they've lost a communal understanding of what women experience, they are too wrapped up in a singular experience, with no way of knowing if it's in any way a shared experience.

The second point Jenna brings up is amusing to me, as a woman who violates this rule so completely in my own reading. I'm amused because while I, and most women I know would fall in as readers with the men in her assertion, a decent number of men would fall in with the women, reading and forgiving everything for the sake of a "fun" read or an attractive heroine. I suspect it's a completely personal trait, but I'm a little disturbed at the ease with which she assigns it to women. Are we really such slaves to our emotions that we can't read a book without needing to feel good about it in some way? Are we really so incapable of clear judgement? I don't think so, and I think the tendency to apply this idea to women encourages a market already full of badly written books, and designed to make women read casually, respond emotionally, and cultivate an unhealthy attitude towards reading - requiring it to produce a certain feeling in order to have value to her as an activity.

It's her third point I want to spend the most time on. She's right in some ways, in that many people do have an impression of men caring "more about the big, overarching matters of the world," while women care more about the intimate, personal details of life. There is sometimes belief that men are really writing about big issues, when they're dealing in the intimate, and women are being too personal even when addressing larger issues, but this is more an issue of projection. Because we assume women write about personal details, we can't see the bigger picture, and because we assume men are dealing with wider issues, we miss the intimacy and emotion. In good writing, as in any other art, the intimate and the universal come together, just as the masculine and feminine elements of the writer come together. A woman who writes primarily "as a woman" fails in that she puts her gender ahead of her humanity. While it's true she writes out of her experiences as a woman, they are experiences in the world, with men and women, and unless she can enter into the mind of the men in her experience, she can never create fully. In this area, I can't help but think of two short-stories by Hemingway - often considered one of the most decidedly male authors - in which he enters into the mind of his female characters in an intimate way: "Hills like White Elephants" and "Cat in the Rain" are short, intense explorations of experiences of women he interacted with, and they indicate that, for the artist, the point is to experience everything, not merely as a man or a woman, but as an artist - to move beyond limitations and become "like the seraphim, all eye."