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Monastery in Ladakh, 2008

Terrance Keenan’s book, St. Nadie in Winter: Zen Encounters with Loneliness, has been my companion while traveling for the last few days. An enigmatic mix of Zen wisdom—part personal memoir, poetry and recovery confessional—Keenan has offered me a rich variation on that unique conversation that can happen with a book.

Early on Keenan describes the source of the entity he has named St. Nadie. When he was still quite young, he had the realization that there was “something more behind who I thought I was. I had no words for it. No one I knew had any words for it—this profound sense there was nobody home. Not emptiness exactly, but not individuality either. My experience of it was deep but erratic…I have spent my life trying alone to understand this nobody within.”

Blending the presence of saints from his Irish Catholic upbringing with the Spanish word for nobody, St. Nadie became a private name for his personal search. When he encountered these words on the gate to the Dai Bosatsu Zendo Kongo-ji monastery in upstate New York, the Zen resonance with that personal “nobody” was clear:

Along the Way
goes no one,
this autumn evening.

In one section of the book he offers a way of viewing ways of knowing. Quoting a scientist friend of his, Keenan shares this point of view:

Science is a method of knowledge by description and that, on the whole, scientists think that the language we use to ask questions and formulate answers, the terms and mathematics of science, mean this or that…”They don’t, he said, “They never did…There is the math. There is the world. And there is the structural correspondence. That’s it.” He recognizes this is a conditional way of knowing and a limited one. He says that it is inadequate to communicate literal experience, or what he calls knowledge by acquaintance (after, I suppose, Bertrand Russell). He suggests that poetry and art are all we have to communicate what we know by experience.

He goes on:

The language of poetry, the act of poetry, is maddening and wonderful—uncertain. There is a plurality of possibility—and impossibility. For me, poetry has become the voice of my inner nobody, of St. Nadie. Recognizing the differences in the ways of knowing is not to give one ascendancy over another but to recognize that understanding the reality of human experience is not satisfied by either or both. There is no one thread, no complex whole, no one answer in the way we want the real to be.

I like the simple elegance of this middle ground. It is one that aligns closely with my view.

More to come…(a phrase that is becoming a mantra for me.)

portrait_1952-2
Portrait of Francis Bacon

I have posted two separate reviews on Slow Painting of the Francis Bacon show at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, one by Jerry Saltz of New York Magazine, and one by Sebastian Smee of the Boston Globe. Both touch on Bacon’s deeply troubled personal life, in particular his experience of love as destructive and painful. Ah the Hazards of Love (thank you, Decembrists, I do love your latest.)

Nothing new about that point of view of course, but it is played out with serious drama and self-destructive extravagance in Bacon’s life as well as his art. Beauty and love are palliatives for most of us, but they weren’t cover enough for Bacon.

I’ve also been thinking about why Bacon, a major art influence in the 20th century, was never a major player in my coming of age as an artist, especially given Saltz’s claim:

Like DalĂ­ and Munch, Bacon is an artist we love when young. Tantalized by the urgency, angst, weirdness, blood, sex, and bodies, we think, That’s me! That’s how I feel!

When I was young, I admired Bacon’s muscular viscerality, the fierceness of his painterliness. But it was never the soul match I felt with the influence of Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Richard Diebenkorn, Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, Willem de Kooning, Brice Marden.

Part of this was a result of my proclivities towards non-representation. But part of it was also vibrational. A longing for the dark side has a very different frequency and amplitude than the propensity for the numinous. Underneath all proclivities and responses to life however is a substratum of fear and suffering. It can be engaged with or it can be ignored, but it is there nonetheless.

Thanks to Whiskey River (you come through for me again and again!) I found this provocative and relevant quote from Taoist author Deng Ming-Dao:

There is an underbelly of terror to all life. It is suffering, it is hurt. Deep within all of us are intense fears that have left few of us whole. Life’s terrors haunt us, attack us, leave ugly cuts. To buffer ourselves, we dwell on beauty, we collect things, we fall in love, we desperately try to make something lasting in our lives. We take beauty as the only worthwhile thing in this existence, but it cannot veil cursing, violence, randomness, and injustice.

That is why spiritual progress is slow: not because no one will tell us the secrets, but because we ourselves must overcome sentiment and fear before we can grasp it.

brandt_bacon