Existence itself is nothing if not an amazement

I’m reading Ten Windows by Jane Hirshfield. It’s a great book, a book to read slowly, to partake in. And it is a text very relevant to my ongoing investigation in the uses of art – listen to this:

Poïesis as making

  • A work of art is not a piece of fruit lifted from a branch: it is a ripening collaboration of artist, receiver, and world.
  • A poem is not the outer event or phenomenon it ostensibly describes, nor is it the feeling or insight it may seem to reveal or evoke. A poem may involve both, but is, more complexly, a living fabrication of new comprehension – “fabrication” meaning, not accidentally, both lie, falsehood, and more simply and fundamentally, anything created and made: the bringing of something freshly into being.
  • Poems lean toward increase of meaning, feeling, and being.
  • The writing of poems must be counted as much a contemplative practice as a communicative one.
  • The desire of monks and mystics is not unlike that of artists: to perceive the extraordinary by changing not the world, but the eyes that look.
Andre-Kertesz-man-reading-002André Kertész

Here is a clip from HuffPost

Q: What is the most important thing to do when reading a poem?

Jane Hirshfield: Listen, without worrying too quickly about whether you understand or not. Give yourself over to a poem the way you give yourself over to your own night dreaming, or to a beloved’s tales of the day. And then, try to listen first to a poem the way you might listen to a piece of music — the meaning of music isn’t some note by note analysis or paraphrase, it’s to find yourself moved.

Q: How does reading poetry change us as people?

Jane Hirshfield: It makes us more permeable, more compassionate, more rigorous, and, in needed ways, smarter. I mean that in the broadest sense: more awake and alert to subtlety and connection, more open to new feelings and new understandings. Empathy with not only people but ants and trees and mountains; sound-work’s lattice, on which surprises of thought can climb; developing the capacity for abiding in the complex and multiple and open — all these things make us smarter.

I don’t, though, want to put forward some idea of poems as primarily useful. Or at least, let me say this: one way poems may be useful is by showing how thin usefulness is.


André Kertész

Good poems restore amazement


This post made me want to take a closer look at Rita Felski’s book Uses of Literature (2008). Felski’s intention is to bridge the gap between literary theory and common-sense beliefs about why we read literature.

Uses of Literature deals with four key elements of the reading experience: recognition, enchantment, knowledge, and shock. These four recall, as she acknowledges, the four “venerable aesthetic categories” of anagnorisis, beauty, mimesis, and the sublime. As I read this text, it is also of great value to the way we experience visual arts.

Since reading Alain de Botton’s Art as Therapy I have become more and more interested in the uses of art. I do not – as de Botton – see art as therapy, but I do believe art has an important function in everyday life, both on an individual an a societal level. But, as Felski notes, it is really not comme il faut to speak of the use of literature – or art.


Jeff Wall, Men Waiting, 2007 © Jeff Wall

In her second chapter – Enchantment – Felski discusse the presumed problems of getting too involved in art, which one easily gets accused of if one wants to discuss the use of art.

For literary critics, she says, keeping one’s distance has been crucial. How can we exercise judgement, how can we critique a text’s ideological entanglements, if we are absorbed by its subliminal and mysteriously enchanting aspects? We would descend to the level of the child transfixed by the television cartoon or by the advertisement for the latest toy, our critical faculties disabled, ourselves deluded. Critics have historically tended to treat enchantment as something to which only “weaker” beings –women, children, gay people – fall victim, not the alert, stout-hearted male critic.

Felski sees things differently, she says:

Modern enchantments are those in which we are immersed but not submerged, bewitched but not beguiled, suspensions of disbelief that do not lose sight of the fictiveness of those fictions that enthrall us. Such enchantments are magical without requiring the intervention of the supernatural, reminders of the persistence of the mysterious, wondrous, and perplexing in a rationalized and at least partly secularized world.

Enchantment matters because one reason that people turn to works of art is to be taken out of themselves, to be pulled into an altered state of consciousness. While much modern thought relegates such hyper-saturations of mood and feeling to the realm of the child-like or the primitive, the accelerating interest in affective states promises a less prejudicial and predetermined perspective. The experience of enchantment is richer and more multi-faceted than literary theory has allowed; it does not have to be tied to a haze of romantic nostalgia or an incipient fascism. Indeed, enchantment may turn out to be an exceptionally fruitful idiom for rethinking the tenets of literary theory. Once we face up to the limits of demystification as a critical method and a theoretical ideal, once we relinquish the modern dogma that our lives should become thoroughly disenchanted, we can truly begin to engage the affective and absorptive, the sensuous and somatic qualities of aesthetic experience.

The sensuous and somatic qualities of aesthetic experience; this is exactly what I’m trying to find an appropriate language for –

perfectly useful concentration

What one seems to want in art, in experiencing it, is the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.

 – Elizabeth Bishop, letter to Anne Stevenson, Jan. 1964

In the same boat: It’s very interesting to see how Bishop, in this short and powerful statement, parallels experiencing & creating art i.e. the perceiver & the artist; we are both looking for the same thing – a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.

Self-forgetful concentration is precisely what happens in the artistic process–an absorption in the moment, a pouring of the self into the now. We are, as Dickinson says, ‘without the date, like Consciousness or Immortality.’ That is what artistic work and child’s play have in common; both, at their fullest, are experiences of being lost in the present, entirely occupied.

– Mark Doty, The Art of Description, 2010

Maybe it’s possible to – instead of Doty’s “the artistic process” – describe the self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration as the aesthetic moment, a place where artwork and receiver fuse.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude  Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972-76

Christo and Jeanne-Claude
Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972-76

The next step could be – and here I’m bringing Damasio into the party – to evolve out of the fuse = become selves (again); to separate emotion from feeling. For neuroscience, emotions are more or less the complex reactions the body has to certain stimuli, say for example art. This emotional reaction occurs automatically and unconsciously. This is what happens in what I termed the aesthetic moment.  Feelings occur after (according to Damasio feelings occurs after emotions) we become aware in our brain of such physical changes; only then do we experience the feeling of pleasure, fear, joy etc.

Mind begins at the level of feeling. It’s when you have a feeling that you begin to have a mind and a self.

In short: Art is about loosing and creating self …

finding words, creating subjectivity

From a bold perspective; would it be possible to claim an affinity between the ideas of the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio and the poet Lyn Hejinian? Comparing how they both present making art as a way of making subjectivity makes me think they might approach a similar conclusion from different points of view.

Here is Lyn Hejinian:

The desire that is stirred by language is located most interestingly within language itself—as a desire to say, a desire to create the subject by saying, and as a pervasive doubt very like jealousy that springs from the impossibility of satisfying these yearnings.

In the gap between what one wants to say (or what one perceives there is to say) and what one can say (what is sayable), words provide for a collaboration and a desertion. We delight in our sensuous involvement with the materials of language, we long to join words to the world—to close the gap between ourselves and things—and we suffer from doubt and anxiety because of our in­ability to do so.

Yet the incapacity of language to match the world permits us to distinguish our ideas and ourselves from the world and things in it from each other. The undifferentiated is one mass, the dif­ferentiated is multiple. The (unimaginable) complete text, the text that contains everything, would in fact be a closed text. It would be insufferable.

The Rejection of Closure (1985)


I died for beauty

beaumontjones says: 

I love Billy Collins’ poem Taking off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes’. The language is simple, light-hearted and beautiful. Collins’ poem itself is as layered as Dickinson’s garments. He leaves us with no easy interpretation of his own or of Dickinson poems. Rather, he opens up spaces for speculation about the woman herself and her poetry.

You can find the Billy Collins poem at the end of this post, but first Dickinson:

I died for beauty, but was scarce
Adjusted in the tomb,
When one who died for truth was lain
In an adjoining room.

He questioned softly why I failed?
“For beauty,” I replied.
“And I for truth – the two are one;
We brethren are,” he said.

And so, as kinsmen met a-night,
We talked between the rooms,
Until the moss had reached our lips,
And covered up our names.




Some keep the Sabbath going to Church —
I keep it, staying at Home —
With a Bobolink for a Chorister —
And an Orchard, for a Dome —
Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice —
I just wear my Wings —
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton — sings.
God preaches, a noted Clergyman —
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at least —
I’m going, all along!

– Emily Dickinson


And here is Billy Collins:


First, her tippet made of tulle,
easily lifted off her shoulders and laid
on the back of a wooden chair.

And her bonnet,
the bow undone with a light forward pull.

Then the long white dress, a more
complicated matter with mother-of-pearl
buttons down the back,
so tiny and numerous that it takes forever
before my hands can part the fabric,
like a swimmer’s dividing water,
and slip inside.

You will want to know
that she was standing
by an open window in an upstairs bedroom,
motionless, a little wide-eyed,
looking out at the orchard below,
the white dress puddled at her feet
on the wide-board, hardwood floor.

The complexity of women’s undergarments
in nineteenth-century America
is not to be waved off,
and I proceeded like a polar explorer
through clips, clasps, and moorings,
catches, straps, and whalebone stays,
sailing toward the iceberg of her nakedness.

Later, I wrote in a notebook
it was like riding a swan into the night,
but, of course, I cannot tell you everything –
the way she closed her eyes to the orchard,
how her hair tumbled free of its pins,
how there were sudden dashes
whenever we spoke.

What I can tell you is
it was terribly quiet in Amherst
that Sabbath afternoon,
nothing but a carriage passing the house,
a fly buzzing in a windowpane.

So I could plainly hear her inhale
when I undid the very top
hook-and-eye fastener of her corset

and I could hear her sigh when finally it was unloosed,
the way some readers sigh when they realize
that Hope has feathers,
that reason is a plank,
that life is a loaded gun
that looks right at you with a yellow eye.

– Billy Collins

art & affect

continuing my research on the importance of art –


(Oh, I know – some of you are more than sick and tired of this, if you are amongst the exhausted ones; please visit again later!)

Here we go: I went to Alain de Botton, I read his book and visited his exhibition, and even went public with my findings. All this because I find his insistence on the meaning of art in our daily life – his focus on the relation between art and audience – of greatest importance. I also find this very same relationship to be under-valued in todays art world. I appreciate de Botton’s focus

– but;

I am not convinced by his model or method. I find de Botton to be too instrumentalistic. This is how he present his ideas himself:

This book proposes that art (a category that includes works of design, architecture and craft) is a therapeutic medium that can help guide, exhort and console its viewer, enabling them to become better versions of themselves.

A big problem for me is that I, even if I disagree with de Botton, haven’t yet come up with an answer to my own question(; … the question of the importance of art). I know a lot of reasons, but I’m trying to build something bigger here, I’m trying to go universal … – it is as if I have to leave my Cartesian brain at home to come up with new and better ideas, new and better language for my feelings …

So why not give in to affections – ?!

Here is Chris Townsend:

There are some works of art that are better written about than seen, though that writing may be only marginally more or less accessible than the art in question. There is a great deal of contemporary art where, through the cultural attenuation of its capacity to apprehend images, to understand historical contexts, to think critically for itself, an audience is thrown back upon the hermeneutic activity of specialists who tell it what to think, how to feel.

Bill Viola, Five Angels for the Millennium 2001 © Bill Viola Studio

There might be a parallel between art and theory here, as if we have painted ourselves into a corner. I do believe that art is of another quality and importance than science and research. The two fields are filling different needs. I don’t thing it is satisfying for the audience to be thrown back into hermeneutic activities, I believe we go to art for something else, something different. We go there, to art, to be transposed out of the ordinary, out of our more or less well controlled minds. I think we have to talk about AFFECT – .