Thursday, June 25, 2015

Nature as Muse and Craftsman

Thinking about aesthetics for the book I'm writing on Virginia Woolf's use of form forced me to formulate my own definition of what I considered art.  I realized that it spoke to my own taste, and in good Kantian fashion (in his Critique of Judgement, Kant insisted that we not impose our taste on others, though we hoped and sometimes believed others would share it), I did not want to impose it on anyone else.  Art was an object or an event that made use of a language (musical notes or visual images, as well as the language we use every day) that was used with a deep and respectful sense of craftsmanship to express an idea.  My definition, like any ill-fated attempt to define art, was meant to keep out things I felt didn't belong.  It excluded clever conceptual art more or less cobbled together that surprised one with its idea but showed no craftsmanship.  It also excluded the merely pretty or the simply beautiful.  Monet, of whom Cezanne said he was simply an eye--but what an eye!--just gets in, since besides creating breath-takingly beautiful canvases, he challenges our way of seeing.  Jim Dine occasionally makes it through my gate, though not with a 5-foot-high heart cut out of a hay bale I saw in the Guggenheim.  Banksy definitely gets in.

Bill and I have just come back from a wonderful trip to Seattle.  It's worth flying there to walk to the Olympic Sculpture Park to walk through Richard Serra's remarkable installation, "Wave," which you see above, and which completely changes your sense of the world by dwarfing you and by changing how air moves and how the world sounds.  You can follow that up by sitting near Calder's "Eagle" in a Calder-red garden chair to watch the sun set over the ocean.  But it was our time at aquarium and the Chihuly glass museum that I found challenged my sense of the distinctions between nature, art, and craft.

Bill loves aquariums, so we visit them early in our trips.  Seattle's does a spectacular job of bringing you close to the underwater world and then teaching you how our behaviour is changing these ecosystems.  They have shallow tidal pools filled with starfish, anemones, and sea urchins--all in remarkable colours like the lime green anemones, soft orange starfish and deep wine sea urchins.  You could use one childlike finger to touch them, and were then urged to wash your hands.  There is also a glass archway that encloses white jellyfish:  you can stand underneath and watch their almost transparent, amorphous bodies surge through the water.  It was like watching a ballet of air ringed round by lace.  Other tanks replicated coral reefs with their brightly-coloured coral and even more brightly-coloured fish.  Nature's gone wild with pure, unsaturated colour in these ecosystems, twisting it into every shape, trying out every pattern of stripes or dots or scales.  A coral reef, I would have had to say to myself, is an aesthetic whole--just as a forest, a mountain, or a prairie are aesthetic wholes.  Farther on, there are  quieter tanks in which nothing seemed to happen:  a few grasses, a rock or two, a beige plant wafting in the currents.  But if you stood there long enough (and most people didn't), you began to notice the fish and the snails going on with lives as interesting and busy as the lime green sea urchin or the bright blue fish with its orange cheeks.  This too was an aesthetic whole, in fact, illustrating nature's sense of craftsmanship.  Perhaps I should be a bit less romantic and refer to this as evolution's craftsmanship.

On Tuesday, reading about short fiction after I finished packing up my office, I read these words from Oscar Wilde in an essay by Joyce Carol Oates:  "That is the mission of true art--to make us pause and look at a thing a second time."  Now I'm not inclined to argue about aesthetics with Oscar Wilde; I am inclined to think about that phrase, "look at a thing a second time."  Reconsider?  Pay something the attention it deserves?  See something differently or even consider the idea that there are a variety of ways of seeing and judging?  All these seem to be important (see Monet above), but they don't sound very different from Elaine Scarry's observation in her remarkable book, On Beauty and Being Just that "It is as though beautiful things have been placed here and there throughout the world to serve as small wake-up calls to perception, spurring lapsed alertness back to its most acute level.  Through its beauty, the world continually recommits us to a rigorous standard of perceptual care:  if we do not search it out, it comes and finds us."  In the rest of her argument, that word "care" takes on many meanings, rising finally to perceiving with enough empathy and imagination to prompt us to justice.  Ironically, it was a justice that Oscar Wilde deserved, but did not get.

But Wilde wrote of art and Scarry of beauty; surely these words and ideas are not interchangeable?  As if to put pressure on this conflation and confusion, our second day in Seattle took us to Chihuly Garden and Glass, a museum devoted to the glasswork of Dale Chihuly.  Having been at the aquarium the day before was helpful:  it allowed us to see the way many of Chihuly's forms reference the aquatic world around him.  It was also helpful that we know something of the indigenous West Coast culture, for some of his forms pay tribute to their baskets and their eye for colour, like the photograph below.  On the one hand, I was gobsmacked by a beauty I could not imagine being made.  How do you rim an undulating red form in bright green?  How do you create stripes?  How do you put together such structures of glass?  Craftsmanship was everywhere in evidence:  this is one culmination of the art of glass blowing.

But where was the idea I needed for this work to be art?  Okay, I'm going to stretch my brain here to see what I come up with.  I can see Chihuly's almost Platonic sense that there is a world of forms--of baskets, sea urchins, flowers, water drops--that the artist can reference to wake up our attention.  I can also see the paradox between the solidity these forms take in glass and their fragility, impermanence, mortality even:  some athletic idiot with a hammer could destroy this beauty very, very quickly.  But how is that different from, say, an ecosystem?
I might find an answer to this in the garden outside the museum, where nature's and Chihuly's craftsmanship collide in a friendly, echoing way.  There, Chihuly might have created more flower forms to echo those suggested by the garden, but instead he offers us surreal forms that emphasize their glass-ness.  Art as artifice?  Art as nature's counterpoint, and a way to emphasize the artness of nature?  Or I might find the answer in an essay by George Saunders about reading Vonnegut while he's working as an engineer in Sumatra and being surprised by Vonnegut's use of humour to reflect on or depict the firebombing of Dresden.  Saunders writes "I'd understood the function of art to be primarily descriptive:  a book was a scale model of life, intended to make the reader feel and hear and taste and think just what the writer had.  Now I began to understand art as a kind of black box the reader enters.  He enters in one state of mind and exits in another.  The writer gets no points just because what's inside the box bears some linear resemblance to 'real life'--he can put whatever he wants in there.  What's important is that something undeniable and nontrivial happens to the reader between entry and exit." 

Does it come down to this, the artist's intentions?  The natural world simply wants to go on being the natural world?  It doesn't purposefully lay claim to my attention, although its beauty has that effect.  Art, on the other hand, might want to draw my attention to nature as a way of engaging that perceptual care that Scarry writes about and that is perhaps the basis of many environmentalists' beliefs.  We preserve the beauty of art; why not also preserve the beauty of nature?  Both are equally life-giving.  Besides, nature, perhaps, is the first teacher, the first example of craftsmanship.  What a wonderful way to end a holiday:  with more questions than answers.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Paper Clips

I was supposed to have my office at the University cleaned out by May 31, but the department head, Troni Grande, kindly organized a reprieve.  At first, I put my attention to finding good homes for my books, and into reorganizing my bookshelves at home, which were more or less frozen in time the minute they filled up, taking the books that no longer suited my interests or my temperament into the university where I parked them in front of the elevator, and then bringing home the books I wanted to keep.  All of my Anita Brookner went into the university:  her listless heroines no longer appeal to me.  A lot of the American male authors from the 1970s and 1980s found themselves dumped unceremoniously on the floor in front of the elevator:  really?  You thought masculinity was that easy--or you hoped it was?  In turn, I'm bringing home a lot of aesthetics and philosophy.  Craig Melhof tells me that Walter Benjamin thought his library was a kind of biography.  Certainly that's true of me, except that something different emerges when you must pare down.  It's as if retirement is forcing me to choose between my past and my future: between the books I read and taught and the books I want to read during Act III.  When I began, I had three walls of books; I'd say I only have one wall left, so I've done well enough. I'm "donating" what's left  to SK Books (, an independent bookseller on Albert and Fourth.  

I'm still puzzled by some of my choices:  why fewer novels and more philosophy?  Even typing in that sentence forces me to face some uncomfortable truths.  I have told my students many times, in a sentence that's not quite grammatical (because making it grammatical would add too many words and muddy the waters), that they will never writer better than they read.  Maybe the slight ungrammaticality is the point:  the skills that they bring to reading they also bring to writing, and the books they write will never be better than the books they read.  There's a historical dimension to this as well:  you have to know what is happening in literature right now in order to enter the contemporary conversation about the human condition and about the form and content of the art that is reflecting on our humanity, our joys and trials, our energy and defeat, our inventiveness and our blindness.  

When I had the honour to examine dee Hobsbawm-Smith's thesis at the University of Saskatchewan--essentially her first novel (and a very fine one), she made the comment that putting characters in very difficult and extreme situations allows both writers and readers to see what those characters are made of.   I saw her point and was grateful for the observation.  But am I the only reader who balks at many of the plots of critically-acclaimed fiction and its tendency to depend on extreme situations to  do the hard work of illuminating the challenges of being ethical, of being human, of failing or succeeding at either of those important tasks?  I've been reading and writing about E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel, so I'm certainly aware of the need for the narrative drive that prompts the reader to ask "And then....?"  But when was the last time you needed to make an ethical decision?  When you were in a parking garage with a gun, shooting a gangster over stolen paintings, as in Donna Tartt's beautifully-written The Goldfinch, or the last time you had to choose between your own need  for a quiet evening and the need of someone you love, someone who's having a difficult time, to go to an action-packed movie?  I'm avoiding modern fiction as Soul Weather percolates, and it puts me in a dishonest position, but one I can't seem to find my way into or out of--whichever is called for now.  Hence the philosophy rather than the fiction.

My second task as I clean out my office is to recycle three filing cabinets of teaching notes.  This doesn't mean simply taking files out of the drawers and dumping them in a recycling bag.  At the very least, I need to pull out the paper clips.  This is a potent, sometimes nostalgic immersion in my past, but also an opportunity to reflect.  One of the things I can see is how my teaching changed over the years, how I shifted from teaching the few things I actually knew something about, like feminist theory, to learning about new things because the discipline changed, literature and society changed, the department's needs changed, or I needed to challenge myself.  Always interested in contemporary fiction, I taught the postmodern Canadian novel in the 90s, postmodern British fiction at the turn of the century before turning back to Canadian fiction written after 2000 for my last CanLit class.  

Early in my time here, I came to the conclusion that I couldn't be a self-respecting feminist critic unless I got a handle on Jane Austen's work, so I foolishly volunteered to teach a class on Austen.  Two years later, Austen-mania arrived, heralded by Colin Firth's Mr Darcy, with his dive into the lake and his wet, sheer shirt.  I used to joke and say that I'd "caused" the plethora of movies based on her novels.  You need to understand something:  in my classes for my B.A.  and M.A. at the university of Michigan, taken between 1968 and 1976, I read no women authors, which is perhaps why women authors and female characters were the focus of my Ph.D. thesis, becoming my first book:  The Callisto Myth from Ovid to Atwood:  Initiation and Rape in Literature.  So if I wanted to teach Jane Austen or Virginia Woolf, I started from nothing but a love of their work and the feminist theory I'd also learned on my own.  Intriguingly, at the University of Manitoba in the late 70s and early 80s, there were no classes in feminist theory, though deconstruction and postmodernism were all the rage.

I was, in fact, hired U of R to teach feminist theory--but how that too changed!  The last time I was asked to teach feminist theory, I came to the conclusion that feminism had to be informed by an understanding of masculinity, so I picked the brain of former Dean of Arts, Murray Knuttila, and offered a class on gender and literature.  Unlike my feminist theory classes, which were usually full, this one had only about 12 students.  I never taught it again, though I don't fully understand why.  Perhaps faced with students' apparent indifference, I didn't think I could reinvent the class one more time.  Were I teaching it now, I would need to reshape it entirely to include things that I don't understand and perhaps don't have the right to talk about, like the missing and murdered indigenous women or the young men who think it socially acceptable to holler sexist and objectifying remarks at female journalists.  (I still don't think we understand masculinity.)  I have long likened gender roles to boxes made for us by society and the people closest to us, boxes shaped by acceptable behaviour, attitudes, and goals.  Why do we put other people in such boxes?  (Perhaps that's why I brought my philosophy home.)  If it's gender we need to understand, then we need to wrap our heads around individuals like T Thomason, the young musician who doesn't feel comfortable with either gender.  How is that, that at this historical moment, gender is both more fluid and more ossified than it's ever been?  All this in a single term?  The task is daunting.  

If Benjamin's biography is his library, mine might be the pile of paper clips above.  Yes, I know, they're empty now.  Once they held ideas about gender, history, and aesthetics, about writers as diverse as Jane Austen and Salman Rushdie, Charlotte Bronte and Michael Ondaatje, James Joyce and Lisa Moore.  I'm hoping that the more illuminating ideas have become part of me so that they can be reconfigured in the writing I hope to do for the next ten or fifteen years.  Just as I'm delighted to have my former student, Cassidy Mc Fadzean successfully launch Hacker Packer and begin to teach at Luther, I'm happy to return my paper clips to the Department office.  The world is unfolding as it should. 

This morning, I was re-reading Robert Pogue Harrison's wonderful book Gardens:  An Essay on the Human Condition.  Perhaps like anyone who sets out to explore the human condition, he quoted Rilke's famous line, "You must change your life."  For once, I did not feel like pushing Twig off my lap to scurry around, changing my life.  I read about the gardens of the homeless this morning, about Socrates and Epicurious and their academic gardens; I've reflected here on my past; in about half an hour, Bill and I will leave for the gym; and this afternoon I will plant my boxes and bake a rhubarb cake.  Tomorrow morning, breakfast with Katherine, and then a week's writing about Virginia Woolf's intriguing essay, "Phases of Fiction."  Perhaps there's not a lot to change at the moment.  Perhaps I also don't need paper clips to hold it together.