On Seeing by the Light of Deity When the Van Goghing Gets Tough
That was actually the purpose of my little query at the conclusion of yesterday's post. It wasn't to elicit testimonials for the blog, but to merely ask, "are you thinking what I'm thinking?" I mean, I just want to make sure I'm not the only one. You see, it's not always that easy to define these things when you're in the middle of them. Again, no one back in 1500 turned to his companion and said, "isn't it a hoot to be living in the Renaissance, what with this new emphasis on humanism, self-awareness, classical learning, and perspectival painting?"
Speaking of which. Schuon deplored what we call the "Renaissance," and thought that it represented a catastrophic turn toward the near total error (for him) of modernity. I want to be fair to him, but I don't have time to give a full explication of his views. However, I think it would be accurate to say that his main beef with the Renaissance was that it represented a rejection of celestial realities and divine mysteries for a reversion to paganism and an overemphasis on this world -- on glorification of the individual, an "art for art's sake," and a general fall from the cosmic center to the terrestrial periphery.
There is clearly a "world hating" theme that runs through Schuon, but it is difficult to say whether this was a cause or a consequence. In other words, we may simply be dealing with an issue of temperament, which is then clothed in metaphysics. For him God is all, and the world is an illusion. I wish I could find the quote, but I remember him saying words to the effect that "once a man realizes Truth, all that is left for him is to patiently await death."
Before you reject his view out of hand, I think that he's merely reflecting a deeper divide between what we might call "ascending" and "descending" spiritualities. While the former types are not excluded from Coondom, I think it is fair to say that most of us fall into the latter category, as I will proceed to explain. This was certainly the whole basis of Sri Aurobindo's approach, but more importantly, I think it is what largely distinguishes "American Christianity" from some of its other variants. Perhaps it is the "Judeo" aspect of our uniquely Judeo-Christian heritage, but America has spawned all sorts of spiritual movements aimed at transforming and redeeming this world, and living the Life Divine on the earth plane.
In contrast, I have read a lot of Orthodox writers who very much reflect Schuon's world-shunning view. For example, the Philokalia -- the handbook for serious Orthodox pneumanauts -- is pretty tough sledding if you have any attachment whatsoever to this world. It's not that it isn't valuable -- quite the opposite. It's just that it is so world-denying that it is a jolt to modern sensibilities, and to American ones in particular.
Similarly, I have tremendous respect for a Father Seraphim Rose, but he is another guy who was only interested in the ascending stairway out of this world. His spirituality -- which was rooted in that of the early Christian fathers -- involved an intense mortifiction, which, after all, is related to death (mort). For him, the idea was truly to crucify the ego with extreme prejudice and be dead to this world, in order to be "resurrected" in a higher world.
For those of you who have read my book, recall the symbols of the two arrows, the ascending (↑) and descending (↓). The only reason what we call "spirtuality" can exist is because of those two arrows which link the above and below. They can be looked at in different ways, one of which would be involution (the descending force) and evolution (the ascending force). The only reason God can be realized is that he is intimately involved in the world.
Now, I didn't expect to discover this, but you will notice in my sidebar that I am currently reading a book on the diametrically opposed Christian metaphysics that informed the painting of van Gogh and his friend Gauguin. I can't yet say that I recommend the book, since it is largely written in that dry academic style, and considers religion from a detached, sociological point of view, as if one were examining dead objects in a museum. Nevertheless, I have found parts of it to be most illuminating.
Let me just cut to the chase: both van Gogh and Gauguin received intense theological training early in their lives. In Gauguin's case, it was very much of the world-denying type. But in van Gogh's case, it was quite the opposite, with an explicit emphasis on appreciating the immanent divinity of this world, which is simply a "veil" of God.
Gauguin's painting reflects a rejection of this fallen world and an attempt to escape upward, while van Gogh's reflects nothing less than the divinization of matter (↓), which, as we shall see, was central to Aurobindo's mission as well. But I also believe that the latter is more true to Christianity, for example, with the Transfiguration, in which Jesus' material body is transfigured into pure light; instead of ascending to heaven, you might say that heaven descends into Jesus, which is a critical point to bear in mind for later. At any rate, van Gogh was quite consciously attempting to do the same thing with his painting, i.e., to transfigure matter with divine light.
Both men received religious training, but in Gauguin's case it centered around the idea that material reality was hopelessly corrupted and "even perfidious," whereas van Gogh was the beneficiary of a new attitude that "placed a special emphasis on the arts as evocative forms of an immanent divinity." Its goal was to "render the infinite tangible" by "embedding the sacred in the stuff of matter and the faces of ordinary people."
In contrast, Gauguin's quest for the sacred led him in the opposite direction: "to dematerialize the physical surface of the canvas as much as possible" in order "to efface the distance between a deficient material world and the ineffable world of dream and the divine." In fact, you may have noticed that many of Gauguin's paintings are as flat and aperspectival as an Orthodox icon -- and for the same reason.
The differences may be summarized as follows: Gauguin sought to dematerialize nature in a "flight to metaphysical mystery," whereas van Gogh sought to naturalize divinity in service of what he called "a perfection that renders the infinite tangible to us."
Elsewhere van Gogh wrote of a "longing for the infinite" in the form of a "permanent, eternal order beneath the surface of appearances" or an "indivisible union of the tangible and the infinite." Importantly, this was a realization, only a descending one. His desire was not to "overcome" matter, but again to "disentangle" the sacred from the profane and mundane. For example in his famous painting of The Sower, he "flooded the picture plane with a dense, materialized light that penetrated every bit of ground and grain":
Wo. You can say that again. The point is, both men saw painting as a mediator of divinity, but in opposite ways. van Gogh "longed for the infinite" in this world (↓). As he wrote, "I want to paint men and women with that something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolize."
Which is another interesting point. The kind of traditional painting which Schuon championed was symbolic in nature, using objective symbols such as the halo to convey a spiritual reality. But van Gogh wished to directly convey the reality beneath the symbol, which Schuon would have objected to as a potentially self-indulgent flight into subjectivity. And you can again appreciate his point, since that is largely what modern art has become: totally detached from the objective spiritual plane, and a celebration of nothing more than the artist's own warped subjectivity. Nothing is less real than mere reality -- unless it is mere subjectivity divorced from the objective (i.e., transcendent) Real.
In Gauguin's case, he wrote of art as an abstraction from nature as a means of "rising toward God" (↑). His goal was to "seek transcendence and the mediation of an ideal, a supernatural realm extending beyond perceptual experience." You might say that van Gogh wishes to make the invisible visible, while Gauguin wishes to make the visible invisible. His "intentional anti-perspecivism formalized the drift of the natural into the supernatural arena," as the way of "mounting toward God" and seeing beyond the "contingencies of matter."
I could go on -- an exact account of their differing theological training is quite interesting in its own right -- but I think I've established my preluminary point.
Which is what?
It is this. Yesterday we spoke of the higher mind, or the "mind of light." The point is, this is not exactly a transcendent flight from, or denial of, this world, a la Buddhism or "ascending" Christianity. Rather, it is precisely the descent of the divine light into our own earthly home, which is to say, our heads. And it is as American as an Apple iPod.
And the other point is this. Yes, matter is an "obstacle" to spiritual realization. Which is why so many illustrious pneumanauts of the past just bypassed it altogether as hopelessly impervious and resistant to the Light. But the Raccoon takes that as a challenge.
Are you thinking what I'm thinking? Give me transfiguration or give me death! In a manner of speaking. Or painting. Or blogging.
For the whole of being is a connected totality and there is in it no abrupt passage from the principle of Truth and Light into their opposite.... The depths are linked to the heights, and the Law of the one Truth creates and works everywhere. --Sri Aurobindo
Here are some Coons of the ascending type: