Wednesday, September 13, 2006

From the Heart

We met with one of our artists' groups last night, for the first time since our summer break. What a pleasure to sit out on the balcony and look out over the green of the garden into the darkening city--and to watch, in the distance, the fierce red glow of the sunset over the Hollywood Hills. I found myself thinking once again what a long, sweet--and, yes, sometimes difficult--journey it has been for this British schoolboy from beneath the usually grey skies of England to the sun-bathed landscape of Southern California. If someone had given me the gift of prescience as a child, I would never have believed it.

The topic for the evening turned out to be working from the heart. Ellie had sent out an email with a quote she'd read from the artist David Hockney (a fellow Brit, by the way, Bush, who also made that journey in his own, very different way). It was a response to a question about how he worked, and it went something like this: "I work from the head, through the heart, to the hand." It reminded me of how difficult it was for me for most of my life to think--let alone talk--about the heart; and how silly and embarrassing my old intellectual self would judge such talk to be.

Silly me. I'm sad now that it took so many years of my life to come to terms with the heart as anything other than the mechanism that sends blood pulsing through the body. Of course, as a metaphor, it means many things to many people. But these days, I think of it as more than a metaphor: it's a place where body and mind meet those other essential elements of the human experience, the emotions and the spirit. I think of it as the core of a human being's existence. If it's hard, resistant, closed, the experience of our lives reflects those qualities. If it's soft, welcoming, vulnerable, and open, our lives expand with it.

I like that old injunction: have a heart.

As I listened to others speak about the role of the heart in their work as artists, I began to get a clearer sense of my own understanding. For me, I realized, to work from the heart means two things: authenticity and engagement. I recognize authenticity in myself as well as others. I also recognize its opposite--when I'm saying something to score points, for example, or when I'm simply bullshitting in order to get my way, to make an impression, perhaps even to deceive. When I'm speaking the truth, it rings clear in the language that I use, the tone of my voice, the images that flow naturally and without restraint. I hear the authority in my voice--not the bossy do-it-my-way kind, but the genuine, from-the-heart kind of authority that makes it clear that I say what I mean and mean what I say. Integrity is another word for it. I know it's true when I see that others hear my clarity.

As for engagement, that happens at two levels. I engage, first, the object--what it is I happen to be talking about. The material. The topic. I am fully focused on its physical or abstract properties. If I'm writing about a church, for example, as I did in the long poem that was my first ever publication, "Aspley Guise", I explore every visual and tangible aspect that my memory can recall. I try to see it exactly as it was, down to the last detail; the stained glass windows, the red sandstone tower, the texture of the altar cloth, the pitted surface of the stone knight on his tomb, the lion on which his feet rest... I try to recall the sounds of the liturgy, the choir and the organ leading the way for psalms and hymns, the voice of my father, preaching from the pulpit; and the feel of the wooden pews, the knees where they met the knubby surface of the hassocks... all this, and much, much more feeds into the totality of the object. The more I can engage with it at this intense objective level, the greater the authenticity with which I can speak or write about it.

The other level of engagement, for me, is with the act of recreation. In the case of the artists in our group, that would take the form of painting, drawing... whatever medium best suits their pruposes. For the writer, it's with the act of writing. Hard to describe if you haven't experienced it, but it's a kind of concentration, a kind of focus, a kind of hyper-consciousness of the act in the moment of its happening. When I'm engaged at this level, everything else fades into oblivion--all the daily concerns, the anxieties, the projections into the future. It can happen with a computer as easily as with a ball-point pen or a pencil and a yellow pad. Nothing else matters. When I next look at my watch, hours might have passed without my having noticed their passage. It's a great feeling, Bush. There's nothing like it.

Together, these two forms of engagement equal passion, and passion equals the full engagement of the heart. Without passion, everything seems dull and unimportant. A couple of days ago I heard the public radio broadcast of a debate between a handful of students--some on your side, Bush, and some on mine--and I was saddened not by the quality of ideas, which were bright and interesting, but by the passionless language in which these students seemed to have been taught to put them out, as though passion were uncool. I have noted that same quality in some of your recent speeches, Bush, and I noted it most recently and most particularly in last Sunday's "Meet the Press" interview with your Cheney.

Hearing him utter the wildest of assertions in the most "reasonable" of unaccentuated tones, I wondered again about our culture: have we been trained to listen only at the surface, and to mistake the manner of speech for substance? If someone lectures us with such appearance of authority--the confident, monotonous, unbroken flow of language, the sweeping aside of doubts and questions in the steady stream of verbiage, the brash assumptions--how many of us simply roll over and buy into that smooth delivery, accepting wild assertions as literal truth.

Or was that your Cheney's passion, his heart's truth that we saw? I guess that could be argued. But I would counter that argument with the dissonance involved: when there are real, ascertainable facts at stake, the words must somehow honor that reality if they are to be authentic. To suggest or imply, for example, as Cheney continues to do, that Saddam Hussein was in some dark, indeterminable way responsible for the 9/11 attacks is to flout the reality that even you, Bush, now publicly acknowledge. And one untruth alone is enough to undermine all the fine speeches in the world. Tell one lie, and how can anyone trust the rest of what you say?

The discomfort that I feel when I hear you speak, or any of your people, arises from the pretense you make to be speaking from the heart even as you utter the most demonstrable of lies. You sold yourself to the electorate, I believe, largely on the claim of authenticity. You told us all that you were a "compassionate conservative"--from which we deduced, a conservative with a heart. Another dissonance. The reality turns out to be something very different. It seems that limits of your heart extend no further than the small circle of the very wealthy, very American coterie with which you surround yourself. If we discount the rhetoric, Bush, the rest of the world... seems almost beyond the realm of your understanding, let alone your heart.


dennis potokar said...

"Hard to describe if you haven't experienced it, but it's a kind of concentration, a kind of focus, a kind of hyper-consciousness of the act in the moment of its happening. When I'm engaged at this level, everything else fades into oblivion--all the daily concerns, the anxieties, the projections into the future. It can happen with a computer as easily as with a ball-point pen or a pencil and a yellow pad. Nothing else matters."

Wow, P: Last night I was having the same thoughts. And words. I was thinking of my happiest moments in life. What were they? The were "when nothing else matters", was my answer. They were whenever I was busy in my occupation with nature or beauty ( in the George Santyanna sense - his book, The Sense of Beauty ).

And the unhappiest moments, were when other people, especially men, have intruded, or I allowed them to intrude into my life, my thoughts, or when I was intruding on them. I think you and I are ready for the Buddhist state of "no mind" or the Lao Tzu state of "non-action".

I think most people are tired of each other with all the baggage others bring, the bad faith, the existential 'no exit', and this has affected how they act, passionless, false, robotic, selfish, closed, indifferent, role playing, trying out readymade solutions. This could be some explanation of what you saw in the young ones. They are suffering. They hate the world as it has been created for them, and yet are forced to cope with it. They are in pain as they cope with their own inadequacies. But they have no consciousness of the path to deal with it. They are still in the stages of learning how to step outside themselves and attain no mind. It takes time, but the simplest of people often come around to it.

They key for the non-artists, the ones with no natural propensity for it, is to turn to their own natures, and nourish themselves. But so many are weak and seek nourishment from that which does not nourish.

Fred said...

Great entry, Peter. Thanks.

PK said...

Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the rest, lamentable aren't they... It's nice to see people such as yourself Peter, who are able to see through all of it, write about it, for the rest of us to read and appreciate. Thank you for being here day after day with your passion for truth, it's restful. To bad we can't find someone in our land to sit on that lofty post of president, and tell the truth, give us all some rest...