We Have So Much to Unlearn Here

These words were scrawled in black magic marker on a discarded mattress in the street on the Lower East Side of New York City. It had been a dismal rainy day and the grey mise-en-scène echoed a Victorian industrial mayhem straight out of Dickens – replete with despair and the promise of depravity.

So Much to Unlearn

New York City: Lower East Side, image: D. Johnstone

I’m always amazed by the contradictions of New York City – the über urban landscape sheathed in decay and metamorphosis. Who would think that while walking down a street that one would see poetic words scrawled on a sordid, old mattress; “We have so much to unlearn here”. It is the proclamation of a poet who has surrendered to a capricious, chaotic universe that shows no mercy.

I envision a broken, forlorn soul evicted from his tiny East Village apartment, dumping possessions into the street that could not be easily moved on his back. In a state of anguish, he records the finality of his thoughts on an old mattress that now, serves as a cultural marker. I – in my infinite quest for meaning – take a picture of it with my iPhone. I post it on a web page. The status of the object is changed. Is it the mad reflection of a soul gone to Hell? Is it the collective unconscious played out in a physical state? Is it poetic? Is it art? Or is it simply the whim of a passerby who happened to have a black magic marker in his pocket?

A discarded object has suddenly become an artifact of significance – it stopped me dead in my tracks and made me think. It is the intent behind the object that intrigues me – a record of symbolic thought. Here passed an individual who just couldn’t help himself – he had to get the imagery out of this head.

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
— William Butler Yeats

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” I’ve also seen this scribbled on walls – long before I could appreciate Yeats. Yeats celebrated the power of imagination, myth, and symbol and engaged in numerous esoteric practices. He believed deeper truths and intuitive meanings lay beneath everyday experience. He attended séances to communicate with the dead and married a woman who claimed she could transcribe mantic teachings from deceased teachers. He was desperate to reach that inner realm of his mind that could access the mysteries of the universe.

Culture is partly a conversation with history. Most often, those with the greatest power provide the interpretation.

Critics, such W. H. Auden and George Orwell, considered his arcane inclinations outrageous and silly. They recognized Yeats’ rare gift with language, but openly mocked his metaphysical pursuits. Does the poet need to be slightly mad to access that part of his unconscious that is revelatory? Is the journey of civilization so wrought with paradox and contradiction that only a madman could make sense of it? Perhaps so.

That may not have been Plato’s judgment, but to his credit, he did acknowledge the “poetic madness is one of four types of madness…” one of them being prophetic. “The poet is inspired, a winged holy thing, filled with the power of the divine, hence mad in a noble way far above ordinary knowledge and consciousness. It is this possession which enables him to achieve the authentically artistic that is more than techne. Conscious rational intellect cannot reduce this to a rule, nor can the man who commands techne raise himself to the genuinely poetic without divine assistance!” [1]

Ah ha, it is advantageous to be mad after all – at least, if one is planning to be a poet. Plato pitted the man of reason against the man possessed by the muse. Only the man who understands the principle of “measure” can judge a representation or imitation – the special form of beauty that he hoped his Republic would become. “All that man or gods create is a re-presentation of a vision.” The measure of this imitation will be judged as either worthy or debased. But who is doing the judging? What if the judge is not worthy?

Culture is partly a conversation with history. Most often, those with the greatest power provide the interpretation. The result is a wrangled chronology where belief systems are imposed on the disenfranchised and isolated. What may seem transitory to one person may actually be trenchant to another. This disparity characterizes man’s never-ending quest for meaning and has fueled civilizations’ growth – and demise – since the dawn of time. Nietzsche attempts to reconcile the duplicity characteristic of human nature. His idea of a Dionysian frenzy counters the rigor of the Apollonian illusion of power and timeless beauty. A break from conformity triggers revolutions and art is an essential part of that revolt.

Our ancient ancestors used animal fat and ochre to record their observations of the universe on cave walls. When the ancient images were discovered in the Lascaux caves in southwestern France, they were subsequently interpreted as “art” or, according to prehistorian and television producer, Mario Ruspoli, “… the cave was evidently a sanctuary for the performance of sacred rites and ceremonies.”[2] Do we really know whether our ancestors “performed sacred rites”? Picasso, upon viewing the cave walls, was quoted as saying, “We have invented nothing”. The startlingly beautiful, 17,000-year-old images rendered by Paleolithic man stand as a testament to our ability to court madness. What remains are the markers of an ancient civilization who thought symbolically and interpreted their world in ways which we will never, ever, comprehend.

Paleolithic Cave painting southern France

Paleolithic Cave painting southern France

Perhaps Paleolithic man’s depictions on cave walls represented the original ancient graffiti [I realize I’m casting judgement on the images] – commenting on the sad state of affairs as Neolithic settlement encroached on Paleolithic land, which in turn, isolated Paleolithic populations from the promise of continued prosperity. In newly formed Neolithic villages, as civilization grew more complex, rigorous safeguards were needed to ensure order and maintenance. As the concept of the individual permeated our consciousness, our Paleolithic ancestors were cut off from more successful groups prospering by domesticating animals and devising agricultural.

As the transition from Paleolithic hunter and gatherers gave way to Neolithic settlements, much more work was needed to produce crops and care for animals. Suddenly, Neolithic man had no leisure time. He needed to cultivate provisions for an increasing population and for the domestication of animals. Additionally, The origins of class structure saw its roots in Neolithic economies. “as greater food surpluses and increased exchange led to more complex and wealthier settlements with full-time potters, weavers, masons …. Social stratification kept pace with the growth of surplus production. By the late Neolithic, low-level hierarchical societies appeared … based on kinship, ranking, and the power to accumulate…”[3]

“Kinship, ranking, and the power to accumulate”, could be cited as the hallmarks of Western civilization. Making a profit as a result of the expression and suffering of others has a long lineage in the capitalist system. In the same way, Influence and interpretation rest in the hands of those with the most control. The pervasive acceptance of the “struggling” artist, poet, and/or playwright, attests to a universal vision of the artist as a rebel who exists on the periphery of society. His anguish becomes a proponent of change and his admonishment of conformity elicits rebuke. Even so, all art has its roots in cultural transformation. Often, we don’t see the shift since the tumult of change has consumed us.

We may not be able to correctly interpret the iconography and exact intent of Paleolithic man’s cave paintings, but it very well could have been a signal that had nothing to do with “art” as Plato defined it, or any concept of imitation. Now we view the Lascaux caves as priceless artifacts. But when symbolic thought occurs as we pass through a culture in the process of technological throes, all subjective observations are rendered invisible. We are too preoccupied with survival and surviving the fall out to see the writing on the wall as it were, or on the mattress as it is.

– D. Johnstone

[1] Plato, “Imitative Art: The Republic”, in Philosophies of Art and Beauty, ed. by Albert Hofstadter and Richard Kuhns, [The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1964], 5.
[2] Mario Ruspoli, The Cave of Lascaux: The Final Photographic Record, (Harry N. Abrams: New York, 1987)
[3] James E. McClellan lll, & Harold Dorn, Science and Technology in World History, [The Johns Hopkins University Press: MD, 2006], 22.

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