Saturday, May 25, 2013

Gustav Meyrink - "The Green Face" (1916)

I was not familiar with Gustav Meyrink when I added his novel The Green Face (Mike Mitchell, translator) to my late winter/early spring reading list (which as you can tell is stretching into late spring/early summer!). I added him for the same reason I added Joris-Karl Huysmans' Against Nature and Georges Rodenbach's Bruges-la-Morte. They are all works that I learned of while reading about artists of the time. They also seemed a bit obscure and were part of (or led up to) some of the artistic/literary movements of the early 20th Century.  In the case of The Green Face, the movement was German fantastic literature or occult fiction.

The plot and characters of The Green Face have an air of early 20th century spiritualists. You know, the people you sometimes see in movies set in the 20s: upper middle class intellectuals into seances and Egyptology. The characters in this book are drawn together by their various attempts to find spiritual knowledge or truth.

The main character, Fortunatus Hauberrisser, has come to Amsterdam amid a flood of people displaced by WWI, although he himself is quite well-off financially. While the war has ended, there is an aura of dread throughout the novel, a sense of an impending apocalypse. This dark foreshadowing for Europe is one of several recurring themes and it, as well the discussion the characters have about it, definitely speaks to the post-war angst that underpinned so much of the philosophy, literature, and art of the first third of the 20th Century.

In the first chapter of the novel, on a whim, Fortunatus enters a shop called Chidher Green's Hall of Riddles. During his visit - while in a semi-dream state - he encounters a man with a green face who launches him into a quest for spiritual understanding and knowledge. Meyrink's very clever first chapter uses the magic shop scene to lay out several other themes the author addresses in The Green Face: the way whim and chance play a role in spiritual searches and that the search for truth is a kind of 'hall of riddles' where nothing is as it seems. Another theme that emerges in the shop is laid out when a shopkeeper shows Fortunatus how to do a magic trick. Despite being shown, Fortunatus thinks "he would never be able to do the trick himself". Meyrink spends a great deal of time in the novel proposing that we must all come to truth ourselves.  It cannot be imparted or taught to us by others. That said, Meyrink recognizes that a word or idea from someone person can be useful - even illuminating - but only if it comes at the exact moment we need it and we are ready for it. Hence, preaching and proselytizing are a waste of time.

Meyrink's characters run the gamut of various forms of religious and spiritual belief, and Meyrink himself apparently dabbled in a wide variety of religious and occult thinking himself. One of his interests must have been Zen Buddhism, because there is a lot of Zen philosophy marbled throughout The Green Face. For example, his theme that each of us have to find truth for ourselves is a bit Zen philosophy.

There are many other examples. The character of Swammerdam describes his search as being about seeking and "inner voice" whose role is to provide "mental balance, the achieving of clarity, ...the way upwards, from insight through rational thought to knowledge through direct contemplation." Fortunatus (in chapter twelve) engages in sessions of what seems very close to zazen to achieve understanding that otherwise eludes him. Lastly, the notion of enlightenment is brought forward in chapter five, when the character Eva has a moment of illumination:
"It was as if a curtain had been rent in two, and Eva was blinded by the light of a new insight. Those last few words had told her more about the goal of human existence than all the religious systems in the world could have."
Another example, in chapter six, comes from an epiphany Fortunatus has when he sees a beekeeper:
"...he realized how the world would glow anew with a magical radiance if he should ever manage to see all the things that habit and routine had robbed him of speech in a fresh light."
What this last quote refers to is the Zen idea that when we are not in touch with the moment, when we overthink and become lost in analysis and interpretation, our thinking is not clear but deluded. It feeds on itself and carries us off into confusions and concerns that we create in our own mind.

At the end of the book, the searches have intertwined and come to a head during an apocalypticse disaster that befalls Amsterdam. The entire city seems to go crazy, while supernatural storms tear it apart. Fortunatus, although it's not really clear to me how it happens, reaches some sort of understanding with himself in the middle of this. At that moment, he begins to see two worlds at once. One is the 'real world' and the other seems to be ancient Egypt. The final achievement or enlightenment Fortunatus reaches appears to be the ability to exists in both worlds - the 'real' and the spiritual - at one time. In some way this may be Meyrink's ultimate message.

As such, The Green Face is about the search for spiritual truth, both as a story and as a guidebook. Unfortunately, things get a bit arcane in the last several chapters and I admit I lost some comprehension of where Meyrink was going.  Despite the sharp increase in mystical mumbo-jumbo though, the novel remains engaging due to his truly cinematic and Dantean descriptions of the unraveling of Amsterdam. So the novel kept my interest, but it definitely demands effort and thought in figuring out what it's all supposed to add up to.

I admit that The Green Face took some time for me to get through, and the characters often got a bit talky. On the other hand, part of what slowed me down was my interest in parsing out the thinking of the characters. I found it fairly interesting because this is one of the few novels I know of that mixes the supernatural with a fully modern philosophical vantage point. I found it an interesting read and worthwhile to dig into and ponder over, and I'll probably investigate other works by Meyrink in the future.

PS: There is a fantastic line in chapter two where Fortunatus' friend Baron Pfeill is on one of his many monologues. He characterizes spiritual scholars of the (then) present day as having "thrown away the kernel and kept the husk". Here are some other memorable lines:

  • "The feeble-minded think the flash is the important part of an explosion."
  • "The difference between one person and another is greater than that between a person and a stone."
  • "It is the ambiguity of language that separates us."
  • "What is right is always the opposite of what the herd does."
  • "I am not going to weedkill things in other people's gardens that won't die of their own accord, but in my own I can do as I like."
  • "...it is better to pick a bitter fruit of your own choice, than to take another's advice and find a sweet one that is too high on the tree."
  • "The valuable thing was not the completed painting, but the ability to paint."

Friday, May 24, 2013

First bike ride of 2013!

18 miles. Of course, I fixed my odometer so now I won't need to use my blog to keep track of mileage. With 50s expected for the Memorial Day weekend, however, I doubt I'll be adding any mileage soon.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Zen Buddhism and Objectivism

Am I serious? Yes, I am. Zen Buddhism and Objectivism are totally compatible. This, despite the only quote I know of where Rand (dismissively) references Zen Buddhism. As you can tell, it was one of her entertaining, thorny moments:
"I suggest that you take note of the following fact: by rejecting reason and surrendering to the unhampered sway of their unleashed emotions (and whims), the apostles of irrationality, the existentialists, the Zen Bhuddists, the non-objective artists, have not achieved a free, joyous triumphant sense of life, but a sense of doom, nausea, and screaming cosmic terror."
Oh Aynnie, you cheeky imp! Of course, maybe she sensed the connection between Existentialism and Zen Buddhism that I also picked up (see Zen Buddhism and Existentialism), but otherwise I have no idea how she found apropos to toss Zen Buddhism into this mini-rant of hers. "Rejecting reason"? "Surrendering to the unhampered sway..."? Rand clearly had no idea what Zen Buddhism is about. Nor does she know how to spell it if you check the quote. Ah well, maybe that's the fault of a bad webmaster. 

So why do I think the two schools of thought are compatible? Here's what the Ayn Rand Institute website has posted from Rand as a quick and dirty summary of Objectivism:
"My philosophy, Objectivism, holds that: 
1. Reality exists as an objective absolute - facts are facts, independent of man's feelings, wishes, hopes, or fears. 
2. Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man's senses) is man's only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his guide to action, and his basic means of survival. 
3. Man - every man - is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, nether sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life. 
4. The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system where men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit. It is a system where no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. The government acts only as a policeman that protects man's rights; it uses physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use, such as criminals or foreign invaders. In a system of full capitalism, there should be (but, historically, has not yet been) a complete separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church."
Zen Buddhism is absolutely in agreement with points 1 and 2. The Zen practice of zazen is used to discipline the mind (I suppose you could say to free reason) for the purpose of being more 'in the moment' and to avoid deluded thinking. This keeps one anchored in reality - not as we perceive it, which can be distorted by whimsical perceptions and emotions - but as it really is. So, in a way, Zen Buddhists recognize that reason can be clouded, but we have a way to filter this out (which Objectivism does not provide). However, from a metaphysical and epistemological standpoint, Zen Buddhism and Objectivism are largely in sync.

As for points 3 and 4, I'm not sure Zen Buddhism really deals with these explicitly. However, I wonder if it's correct to say that we take her point 2 much more literally then she does herself. Understanding reality is our source of knowledge and guide to action. When one is truly in touch with reality, therefore, we are likely to behave in the way that best accords with it. So if her points 3 and 4 are, in fact, correct then an enlightened person would probably act in that way. However, they would do so by default based on having disciplined their mind or reached enlightenment, not because they read that it was right in a book on philosophy, ethics, economics, or politics.

Maybe, just maybe, Zen Buddhists out-Objectivize the Objectivists?

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Atlas Shrugged & How to Assess the Arts

Atlas Shrugged is a hugely successful and widely reviled novel by Ayn Rand. Many people subscribe to her philosophy, Objectivism, and even place Rand on an intellectual pedestal. Others vehemently hate the philosophy and the woman who created it. Rand's novel has received additional attention in of late with Tea Party politicians claiming her as inspiration and the trilogy of Atlas Shrugged movies rolling out. This post is not a review of Atlas Shrugged or the movies; it's more of a launch pad for something else (but I'll likely be providing a 'Zen Buddhist school of criticism' post on Objectivism before long).

Few novelists engender the intense emotional responses Ayn Rand does. Just check out reviews of any Ayn Rand book (especially Atlas Shrugged) on amazon.com and you will see a hotbed of vehement reactions from the celebratory to the acidic.  Of course, the quality of these comments varies substantially. I remember one reviewer admitted to having read less than a chapter of Atlas Shrugged before throwing the book aside and dismissing it, Ayn Rand, and Objectivism as evil. I don't maintain a specific 'Top 10' list for literature but, from a qualitative standpoint, I could probably rattle off fifteen to twenty works I would consider candidates for my 'Top 10' list. One of them is Atlas Shrugged.  When I share this opinion, I find I receive one of two reactions: 1) assuming I agree with her philosophy in total, and/or 2) a gasp of shock followed by all the reasons for disliking or disagreeing with Ayn Rand. 

The point I wanted to make with this post is that whether one agrees with or likes Ayn Rand or Objectivism is irrelevant to assessing Atlas Shrugged as a piece of literature. In fact, whether one agrees with or personally likes any piece of literature or painting or music is irrelevant to assessing its artistic merit. 

Now I'm not saying personal taste doesn't play an important role in reacting to and analyzing art. I actually find gut reactions a useful first step in doing so. However, the problem with gut reactions is that they are largely informed by what we have been exposed to and are comfortable with. As a result, anything innovative or 'outside the box' is very likely to create a negative gut reaction. So gut reactions are not valid as the primary basis  for assessing or rejecting anything. The key step, which I think many people don't bother with involves thinking about why we have the gut reaction we do. So while I feel we should embrace our initial, emotional reactions, we must be sure to analyze them so we know where they come from. Through this process, we can learn a lot and even recognize merit in  music, art, or literature that we fundamentally do not like.

Blue Poles, 1952
Jackson Pollock
oil on canvas, 2.10 m x 4.9 m
Here's a personal example. When I first saw a Jackson Pollock painting, I hated it. I found it meaningless, and I believe the artist would agree with that. My gut reaction to his work is annoyance that 'splatters' are heralded as art, and I am entitled to it. What I'm not entitled to - if I want to be intelligent - is to enshrine my knee-jerk reactions as considered opinions. The fact is that every innovative painter since Impressionism has been greeted with exactly the kind of knee-jerk reaction I had when I first saw a Pollock painting, yet no one today would deny that Monet, Van Gogh, Matisse, or Picasso are master artists. The fact they were innovative and new led people to react negatively and dismiss them.

When I dug deeper into my reaction to Pollock, I came to a very different appraisal of him. Does that mean I like him now? No. I still hate his paintings, and I see little chance of that ever changing. However, I do recognize him as a major figure of art. His point in creating these pieces was to assert that art did not have to objectively depict anything in order to be art and, even though I do not like his work, I respect his contribution and the balls it took for him to do it. My assessment of Pollock now to see him as a revolutionary, but one whose work may be less meaningful outside the revolution it led. While I appreciate the brilliance of what he did, I question whether his work will last as long as other Abstract Expressionists (e.g., Rothko, Mitchell). My thinking also helped me form an opinion about 'splatter' paintings by contemporary artists, namely that doing Pollock-esque splatter paintings in 2013 is regurgitating a revolutionary style sixty years after it was shocking. That's not only derivative but it's also a big bag of sad.

So back to Atlas Shrugged. Do I agree with Objectivism? Do I 'like' Ayn Rand? It makes no difference. I find Atlas Shrugged to be a phenomenal novel because it transcends itself. Atlas Shrugged is the crystallization of a view point, a philosophy. This is an incredibly ambitious undertaking and few writers have attempted it. That the book is also a fantastic page-turner (after say about page 50 when it starts to cook), works on a huge scope, and has one of the most intricate and fascinating plots I've ever come across in a novel makes it a major accomplishment on every level. 

When I hear/read something like that reviewer throwing the book aside after less than a chapter and declaring dislike for all things Ayn Rand, all I think is: that's a limited person. The wonderful thing about art and ideas is it allows you to expose yourself to things that are different, even alien, such as having your ear stretched by an innovative musical style or seeing a painting that comes at visual art in a way you've never experienced before. Reading ideas that conflict with your own is good. One doesn't have to agree with what one reads to learn from it. A person who shuts off to everything but a narrow set of inputs they agree with is - in my opinion - a limited person.

To take it a step further, this kind of narrow mind set is what has created the dysfunctional government we have been suffering under for most of the 21st Century. People seem to have forgotten that it's okay to tolerate other viewpoints, to explore, to debate, to 'pass through' without accepting. Taking input from many sources, even some that you disagree with, forges the best possible ideas and experience. It's what thinking, learning, and growing are all about!