I've always had an interest in examining the meaning and essence of humor. As a student I decided that one of my lifetime quests would be to understand why we laugh. I'm still trying to figure it out. It still puzzles me. I've read a lot about it, and discussed it with my friends, but am no closer to fully comprehending it.
I came across a few items yesterday. They've been around for a long time. The problem of answering a question under oath with a simple yes or no. How it can't be satisfactorily done.
An old example is this: "Have you stopped beating your wife?" I recall that my father spoke of this one. But also how on another occasion I pointed out that using violence against women was no longer a laughing matter. After a second or two, he agreed.
But the question remains relevant. It can't be answered without causing great confusion, and misleading consequences.
A newer illustration of the same problem is this question: "Do you hide your pornography collection when guests come over?"
Even as I type this I'm laughing. I picture a man squirming on the witness stand being grilled by a prosecutor. It can't be answered with a yes or no without blushing.
Then I read about an earlier situation of the same sort, which is also funny. It's when a doctor was required under oath to answer truthfully either yes or no.
"Was he your patient?"
"Did he die?"
"Thank you, that is all. No further questions."
Apparently this was an actual incident, and led to the doctor losing his practice. In any case, it is kind of amusing. There must be others. Probably used in law schools.
(Some other questions can never be answered with a yes: "Are you asleep?")
But why exactly are these examples funny? I guess it has something to do with the contrast between pure logic and life itself. How nuances, and shades of gray, must necessarily exist for humanity. Comedy appears when we try to be too literal, too rigid, in our thinking. It must drive researchers in the field of artificial intelligence crazy.
Robots are strangely comical. Even frightening ones, like in "The Terminator" movie. We're always on the verge of laughing.
Still reading the diary of a famous Parisian art dealer: Rene Gimpel. He writes about that fertile period between the World Wars.
I've known people who wish they were born in a different place during a different time. They mean in the past. They dream of Paris at the beginning of last century, or New York in the 1940's or even 1980's, London, Berlin, or California during some previous decade.
One of my most intelligent friends, a real art collector, pointing to the beginning of his driveway, said "the twentieth century stops here!"
Not for me. I have no interest in being transported back. Or even forward. I enjoy studying these historical epochs, though.
It's amusing to see how the dealer is flabbergasted at "modern" painting. All of his refined knowledge -- which he mistakes for complete understanding of the essence of art -- is rooted in the years leading up to the appearance of Matisse and Picasso. Cubism enrages him. Even if he senses that he can't stop its disruptive success. This irrepressible emergence of The New stuns him.
But painters can do, and will do, as they like. They might be nostalgic to the point where they can't let go of the achievements of the past and end up making pieces that fit in with those works. It's their prerogative. Maybe they think, well, what does it matter? In 200 years people won't be able to see the difference.
On the other hand, as someone wrote, "either you're a revolutionary or a plagiarist." Actually, most artists are a little of both. For much of their lives.
But it does take some balls to push into the outer unknown world, while simultaneously penetrating the deeper layers of the inner self, and make something from this sustained activity.
Not that easy. Not for everyone.
Either artists overrate the past and underrate the present, or vice versa. Almost no one gets it right.
The last few paintings I've made are some of my best, if by best I mean some of my most personal. But I may not be seeing them right. Seeing them as they are in themselves. This is the point of art.
I can't expect others to get what I'm trying to do. They aren't able to read my mind, my motivations. Especially by only looking at an isolated painting. But that will be what many are faced with, presently, and in the future.
I've known artists who explain to me what each work means. But what if I'm not there to hear it? Does the work reveal its value anyway?
Yesterday at a junk store I bought a ceramic vase. For a buck. It's hand-thrown, not cast. Made by a skilled potter. Unsigned. Beautifully glazed and formed. Not old. With a firing crack on the base. Otherwise perfect.
Who made it? I don't know, and never will know. I like its anonymity. Modern paintings are always signed, and make it possible to track down the painter. Possibly even hundreds of years later.
But Michelangelo never signed anything except for a single sculpture when he was in his youth. He considered it insulting. As if the style wasn't enough to determine its creator. As if it could have possibly been made by anyone but him.
Michelangelo realized that he was inimitable. No one could possibly copy him. His art was as unique as himself. This, to me, is the ultimate sign of artistic greatness.
Artists would do well to ask themselves what permanently separates them from others? What is it about their art that can never be reproduced? What is it about their work that is never mistaken for someone else?
The property in their painting that rises above all tendencies to compare it with something else. That destroys every trace of likeness. Comparisons are indeed odious.
I began reading the newest book I bought. It's a breezy, anecdote-laden work. I race through it too quickly, and have to put it aside for a bit. The most memorable parts were the art dealer's visits to Impressionist giants' studios: Renoir and Monet.
Renoir turns out to be a ghost of himself, but still having all his marbles. The body falls to pieces but the last to go is the fire in the eyes. Monet is better, and about the same age: 78. Two years older than me. But the comparisons end there. Except for one thing. Monet says he is "unhappy, very unhappy."
Why? Because painting makes him suffer terribly. He starts a new painting with the highest hopes, bent on making a masterpiece, but it's nearly impossible. Over and over. Nothing but the worst kind of depression.
I was surprised and pleased to hear of this condition. I'm not the only one who is mired in such a plight. I've often felt Monet's influence in my life and work, even though our styles couldn't be more dissimilar. Actually, I once made a copy of a Monet landscape for an antique dealer. It was the only time I ever did something so absurd. But I was broke. It ended up looking almost exactly like a Monet. The antique store owner always referred to me afterward as Patrick Monet. Kind of dumb. That woman.
Yeah, it's easy to copy but hard to create.
I also like how the artists of that time often deride so much of their work as trash. How they kick holes in their canvases, or slash them to ribbons. How they wish they could get them all back and repaint them, or throw them in the fire.
These attitudes resonate with me. Endlessly crushing disapproval of themselves. With no one to blame except their own incompetence. Where are those painters today? I don't see them.
As for the art dealer, he's a horse of a different color. Another thing that I've noticed in my own life. Those who sell or buy art are utterly unlike those who make it. Black and white, night and day. There's no real understanding between them.
I'm prepared to say that the artists understand the non-artists better than the non-artists understand the artists. I was once a non-artist, but most non-artists remain that and nothing else.
Hector is making four new large supports for my next paintings. So I have a few hours to kill, even though I prepared a small one on my own for today.
When this happens I usually poke around the studio making small repairs here and there. Patching a wall, organizing my tools, straightening up my book shelves, etc.
And often go to a nearby thrift store in Boyle Heights. It has a good selection of used books, and I bought two yesterday. I like how they just appear there, as if they're waiting for me. One is titled "Japanese Design Motifs." A thick, long book. $1.50. It contains hundreds of black and white line drawings of Japanese family crests. A real treasure for me, just when I was running out of patterns for my silkscreens. I can choose one of these motifs, a more universal one, and scan it into photoshop. Then I clone the single image into a several rows of itself to make up a sheet, which I take to a service downtown to have them burn a new screen.
I've noticed lately some very skillful tattoos on IG. They look too sophisticated to be made up on the spot for a customer. Now I realize where many of them come from: this book, or one very similar. It'll be fun to choose a few. It probably contains dozens I could eventually use for my art.
The second book I bought is also useful. I stared at it for a while before deciding. A heavy hardback with a damaged dust cover. "Diary of an Art Dealer." By Rene Gimpel. I seem to recall reading about it when it was published. This one is a first edition from 1966. $2.00. It covers the years between the wars: 1918-1939. It includes many entries about the famous painters belonging to the School of Paris, where the dealer lived. Inside stuff concerning the so-called art world is always fascinating reading for me.
It was only later when I examined the book at the studio did I learn that Rene Gimpel died in a Nazi concentration camp. This made the whole volume much more pertinent, the Holocaust being one of my scholarly passions.
As I read the diary I will be aware of the abominable fate of the writer. All the fancy dinners at elegant restaurants, the highest fashions, the millionaire collectors, the music, beauty, and joie de vivre . . . and how it abruptly ends in catastrophe, the darkest crime in history.
People ask me why I am so involved with the Holocaust? Because it shows me who we really are. Stripped of the veneer of civilization.
The word "own" has a number of connotations. In the 1960's one of the slogans was "do your own thing." I thought it sounded like a good idea. I quit teaching school and started doing what I felt was my own thing. I made metal objects with a torch, and leather articles such as sandals, belts, and purses. Working my way closer to making art, which has turned out to be closer to my own thing, but also more difficult to accomplish.
To make my own art showed me that I wasn't as clever as I imagined. My own painting wasn't my own painting, but rather copies of other people's painting. If you stood back and stared at a finished work it was easy to detect influences from well-known artists. Often several artists. They were all there, but put through my own grinder first.
Painting places a high value on the artist's original personality. Does the painting reflect his own vision, his own technique, his own style? If the answer is yes, that's important. It's nearly paramount. In other fields it often makes sense to merely do what the guy down the street is doing. Success means effective imitation.
In daily life it's no different. There are entire mobs of people who copy each other in how they talk, walk, think, dress, behave, feel, and generally go about living. This habit leads to a deadening uniformity. It can be very repellent. Even disgusting. It makes the original person keep moving, or go into hiding. Anything to get away from this vast smothering fog of herd-like mediocrity.
What's the solution? For an insightful man or woman it's to methodically reclaim themselves. To find their way back to their unique self. A self that has been gradually stolen from them. Even half-consciously given away as a present. Or grudgingly as a sacrifice.
This recovery process can take years, and only become partially achieved. But even that is a victory.
Owning yourself is key. And subtler than it seems. Owning your house is easier than owning your body, which is easier than owning your mind. It's often a long road but it needn't be. It can take place right where you're standing. Right this minute.
But what precisely does owning mean? To own is similar but the opposite from the word owe. We start off in this world with a sense of debt, as if we owe someone something, such as parents, society, religion, country, etc. But as we individually evolve we move from owing to owning. From feeling indebted and under pressure, to being in possession of our world, from being enslaved to being free.
Instead of yesterday's slogan of doing your own thing, today's could be do your own self.
As I age it's not as if time goes faster. It's more like I'm conscious of time's movement. Time trots along as its usual pace, but now I notice it more. I sometimes imagine I can feel the ground under me moving. The earth rushing and whirling through space.
When I was a boy of around ten I had a realization. It was in the family car as my mother was driving us to the country club. We always took the route along the Mississippi river, which flowed by on my right as we headed out of town.
I was in the back seat, staring at the movement of a fly. Watching it flit from here to there. I asked myself if the fly was traveling at fifty miles an hour. If it was, it was doing it so leisurely, without any effort, or awareness. The car was moving, hitting on all cylinders, burning gasoline. The fly couldn't by itself move at fifty miles an hour. It wasn't even conscious of being carried along at that speed.
I wasn't sure what inference I could draw from this fact. And today I still don't know. But it struck me as odd. As if humans could be like the fly. Carried along inside a bubble, without being aware of it. A bubble, within a bubble, within an even greater bubble. And so on.
Was motion through space just like a baseball being tossed through the air? It seemed like it. Or was it like the fly being carried in a purposeful manner from here to there? Thoughts like this made me a little uneasy. Hard to tell whether it was pleasant or nauseating.
Could it be that individual humans move outward through space until they reach an end-point, which is death? The end-point is simply when they turn around and head back where they came from, centripetally instead of centrifugally.
It's not like time turning backward, but like time circling homeward, like someone out gathering food and coming back with their arms full. Returning to the hearth.
It's my daughter's birthday. Her mother is in LA, and we're all going out for dinner tonight. To Dante's new favorite restaurant in Little Tokyo. You wouldn't know it's her birthday. She's more quiet about it than I am about mine. I don't think I've ever met a more modestly self-contained person in my life. I suppose she was born that way. But it still makes me scratch my head.
She can celebrate this: her first framed painting. Hector, the carpenter, is holding it up and I photographed it as he was working on it. It's now in the studio and Dante will see it in a few minutes, after she arrives.
"It's not too late to start painting, is it?" she asked the other day.
"Of course not. There are several examples of famous artists who began to paint after age 40." Actually not many. Dubuffet. Grandma Moses. Several outsider artists.
A person is better off beginning before age 10 and never ceasing. Like Picasso. Like Michelangelo. But if that isn't your case don't let it stop you.
I've mentioned before that it's a great benefit for a man like myself to have a daughter. It really has transformed me into the person I am today. It wouldn't have been possible otherwise. It's caused me to crucially alter my behavior toward women. Something I sorely needed.
I'd say that one of the tragedies of my father's life is that he had six sons and one daughter. It would have made a world of difference if he would've have had six daughters and one son. His chances of happiness: six times greater.
Daughters and fathers have a sensitive, nearly sacred relationship. No one cracks jokes over it. This is not so between sons and mothers. That has an obvious humorous side.
I'm eternally grateful for being a father of a daughter. Even my small world breathes easier because of this fact. I'm much less of a nuisance to everyone.
"Man and His Symbols" by Jung was first published in 1964. There was a photo of a strip of drawings done by someone under the influence of LSD. I pondered them. They supposedly show a process of disintegration. Or that's what some people concluded. I must have thought something similar. I had no idea how LSD would affect my mind. Nor any drug other than alcohol. I never touched them. I had no use for drugs.
But as an artist it did pique my interest. Only mildly. It was more of a warning than anything.
I found myself increasingly drawn to mystical philosophy. I read William Blake, who mentioned Swedenborg, and Boehme. Aldous Huxley was one of my favorite authors. I read his "Doors of Perception." It stimulated my thinking. I devoured more mystical philosophy: Meister Eckhart, Plotinus, and "The Cloud of Unknowing."
Then one of my fellow teachers told me about taking LSD. He insisted that I should try it. I laughed and dismissed the idea. He was fired from his teaching job -- one that I was able to help him obtain -- grew his hair long and a beard.
Then my younger brother Matt, who was in art school, also told me about the time he dropped acid. "I looked in the mirror and saw my face melting." Strange. But interesting. I once again declined this experience.
I finally quit teaching after two years, packed up, and drove to California. I was married and my wife and I rented an apartment in Santa Barbara. It was the fall of 1968. I remember it like it was yesterday. Mainly because of that original shattering experience with LSD. It was an Owsley tab. Or so we were told. Each of us took one. My friend from teaching days and his wife joined us. I had lost touch with him, but, oddly enough, as we were driving down the 101 freeway they happened to be in the lane next to us. A rare coincidence, for sure. Steve bought the LSD from a dealer in Isla Vista, where he was now living.
Well, everything in my life starts with that unique moment. Everything before that was prologue. Everything afterward is consequence. I'll try once again to explain what took place.
But it's nearly impossible to translate into language. It's beyond words, but also includes words. As someone once wrote: whatever you think it is, it isn't that. I definitely agree.
Spinoza said it best: we remember what is simple and startling. My own brain is full of simple, startling things. Images, mostly moving ones. Words. Sentences and even dialogues. But it's not clear what it all means.
Why does this fragmentary scene stand out? Why does a passage from a book stick in my mind? Or that stranger's face? I fail to see a pattern. But there must be some purpose at work. A subterranean activity going on, even while I sleep. Maybe mostly as I sleep. I don't know.
I notice a lot of advice on social media clustered around this thought: keep your dream alive! Don't give up!
It seems a bit ridiculous. But not entirely. To me better advice might be make your dream become conscious. Transform murky hints and shadowy emotions into bright, full consciousness. Give solid form to your gossamer dreams.
As a young person I was at the mercy of erratic feelings. But today those feelings have become more intelligible. They've turned into a plausible narrative. Something that can be further changed into art. Into paintings.
If I'd like to create paintings that adhere to a viewer's memory I'd be wise to follow Spinoza's insight. Make it simple and startling. That way it'll penetrate. It'll find an opening into another's life.
Simple and startling is tricky. Maybe artists start off that way, but we become immune to their strategies. They stop stopping us. Nor does the initial reaction remain in our memory. But at least it was there momentarily. Most don't even get that far.
But forgetting is just as important as remembering. We're not meant to pack our minds with useless dreck. Any more than to fill our guts without ever shitting. It's good luck to have a touch of senility. To let so much of my life slide into nothingness. Where it belongs.
I'm working on a new painting. And a new support, one made by our barrio woodworker, Hector. His shop is a block from me, and we collaborate well together. I showed him what I wanted and he realized it perfectly. A beautiful blank framed surface, which I immediately covered with two layers of joint compound. Fantastic. It sends me into orbit.
I have dreams of a grand finale of magnificent paintings. A veritable world-shaking eruption. Give me another ten years. A decade of stupendously unceasing creativity.
I get carried away imagining it . . .
But you don't paint with only your hands and your eyes. You paint with your brain, your heart, your soul, and your balls. Every part of you. With the whole being. With your vision, your dreams, your fantasies, your nightmares, and your delusions.
The whole schmear.
Philosophy fans like to quote Hegel: "the real is rational, and the rational is real." Not bad. But not quite the way it is.
Go outside, open your eyes, drive down the street, pick up a newspaper, turn on the tv, or click through the internet . . . then try to tell me the real is rational.
What "real" are we talking about? What rational?
The staggering profusion of my world is very bizarre. I look pretty closely, too. I'd have to conclude that the "rational" itself is kind of unreal. It doesn't have much to do with the world I deal with.
The everyday world, the one not overlaid by a veneer of abstract idealism, is real.
The rational, intellectualized, conceptualized, religiously designated, world is unreal. It doesn't mirror what's happening. Nearly always it's only a faint pipe dream.
Everyday life, the one we enter and struggle with until we croak, is (unluckily) real enough. But hardly rational enough. It's a motley blend of everything under the sun. Behind the sun. Outside of the sun. Crazy. Wild. Real, yes, rational, no. Why kid yourself?
The real...reality...is indeed rational: but only partly so. It's also irrational, illogical, and an airy phantasm as well as a concrete thing.
So, in speaking of reality don't forget to include all the unmethodical madness. They can be found together in the same place.
I posted this yesterday on FB and IG. People seem to like it. I'm glad they do. I think it's a successful painting. To me this means it's both original and beautiful. A difficult thing.
Not the most original, or most beautiful, painting that exists. But it might be able to be found in the back room of such immortal pieces. It should hold its own over time.
In fact, time is the theme of the painting. The broken circle represents a moment of time. Something that begins, follows a pattern, but doesn't end up where it started, and is compelled to carry on.
"I came up with a new concept of marriage," I told Dante. "I've always been critical of marriage by the State or church. That's not good enough for me. I invented a new ceremony. It's based on our conversation the other day."
"I see two people standing face to face. Maybe outside in a natural setting. Only two of them. There's no reason for anyone else to be present. They look into each other's eyes and say simultaneously 'all I have is yours.' Then they kiss soulfully, dreamily, passionately, and hold it for a few moments. That's it."
"I like it."
"Well, here is the point. When they say 'all I have is yours' they're vowing to share all they have with each other. All I have is good, although not complete and perfect. For a true marriage we want to share all property but also all being. All I have and all I am. The kiss means all I am is yours. It's a sign of strong physical mutual desire."
"That covers it."
"This kind of marriage leaves no room for anything else. It's total and honest. Of course it can only take place between two people who are infinitely trustworthy. People who rigorously abide by their every spoken word. It's founded on perfect entrustment. It wouldn't work for insincere types. Only for those who are embodiments of truth."
"That's what I'm looking for," said Jackie. "Some get-out-of-town money."
"It can be done. You can do it. I've done it, and not just once." I said.
"But I'm broke. And behind on this month's rent."
"If you're really serious about leaving LA then there're things you have to do. But they can be irrevocable. I mean certain bridges will be burnt forever."
"I could sell my paintings, take Brando, get in my pickup and head out . . . "
Brando is her dog. A beagle. I bought it for her as a Christmas present 15 years ago. Jackie's lived in the same apartment all this time. She's also married. But, still, broke.
She was waiting for some paintings to dry and sat down next to my table, where I was having an early dinner. After two glasses of wine I was in a more talkative mood. Plus she was inclined to listen, always something difficult for her. But it wasn't new information. We've had similar conversations many times.
As a younger artist she's facing the same obstacles that I once faced, but superficially different. I told her about the time I drove across America with my daughter who wasn't quite two years old. Just the both of us. What a ride. It hurts to think about it, forty years later.
"I was out of money. At the top of the Rocky mountains. Nothing. Zero. I coasted downhill."
"Where was this?"
"Colorado. I knew there was a small town, and old mining town not far away. I realized I'd have to stop and come up with some cash. I had a stack of small bronze sculptures in the car, but they were harder to sell. So I grabbed this gold ring that had a ruby set into it. It was dropped off at my gallery and the owner never came back for it."
"So it wasn't even yours?"
"Well, no. I guess partly mine. But I had no idea where the guy was. Or his name. I had set the ruby for him. I think it was either his ruby or his ring. I forget which. It was left at the gallery for six months. And now it was closed. Anyway, I decided to sell it for gas money. We coasted into the town, parked, and I looked for a jeweler. I found one on the main street and told him I was broke and he bought it for $50. I was so relieved. Then after eating two ice cream cones, I filled up the car, and drove on."
"It wouldn't take you far today."
"It didn't back then, either. I had to call my parents and tell them I was headed their way. They wired another fifty bucks to me in Omaha. I got to the Western Union a few minutes before closing time and was surprised to find money waiting for me. Life pitches in and rescues someone from disaster. Now and then. As long as it doesn't happen too often. But there were many other desperate times, too ."
"Things are not like that today. I've driven all over California with a truck full of paintings and didn't sell one."
"Because you didn't need to. You still had a little money left. But when you're dead flat broke you'll part with them. For gas money. And food. You haven't reached that point yet."
Each day brings fresh clues to a mystery that only becomes deeper. Mysteries are solved by a proper use of clues, but some mysteries only grow larger because of clues.
Life is like that. You imagine you've reached the end, an empty room like a windowless, doorless cell. But an inadvertent tap on a wall opens to reveal something more, a whole landscape beyond. And this landscape goes on until reaching the edge of high cliff. But it, too, has a secret path to the bottom.
And so it continues . . .
There is no end. Only new openings that beckon.
I'm starting another painting after I finish writing this. Many years ago I came to the conclusion that painting, as a gift, had no conclusion. I could work every day until I died and still wouldn't be perfectly, permanently, satisfied with the results.
Painting is proof of an afterlife. Maybe it needs at least a thousand years of unremitting effort. No painter on earth could be pleased once and for all with his painting. He demands more time. Always.
The next world is perhaps filled with painters. Still furiously busy. Still getting better. Still savagely focused.
Painters aren't delighted when Friday afternoon arrives. Or depressed by Monday morning. The weekend never ends for a painter. Never begins or ends. Non-existent.
A painter doesn't paint in order to quit painting. In order to take a break, or a vacation, or retire. He paints in order to never stop painting. He's discovered his own variety of endlessness. He has no fears about it, nor great hopes for it.
He's fine with the journey. An eternal trip in one place. In front of a blank surface.
Reading philosophy that resonates with me. So much of life doesn't resonate. It doesn't move me. Doesn't enter my consciousness and lodge in my memory.
I look at my library and realize that many books, even though I conscientiously devoured them, leave no trace. Just like food I've eaten.
But other books, things, and people, do leave a lasting mark. I'm not sure why. It might go back to ancient theories of atomic particles having definite shapes whirling around until they bump into matching formations. These particles don't just collide, they fit together, clinging.
Max Stirner heavily underlines the fact that modern humans, just like the older ones, are spooked out.
It's a funny term for a 19th Century philosopher to use. But very meaningful today. Yes, people are spooked by a number of things. And not just mythical "primitive" people, but even the ones at the top of our technological culture.
What does it mean to be spooked? It means to be haunted by some kind of barely perceptible presence. Not just the famous "ghost in the machine," but even further, such as the machine-less ghosts out there. And in here, as well. The feeling of sacredness, the Holy Ghost. The esprit de corps of a collective undertaking. The soul of a dead person, or the fixating idea of an absent lover. All sorts of spooks, who haunt us every which way.
When humans "grow up" they eliminate most spooks. They no longer think spirits dwell in every object they encounter. They aren't afraid of ghosts hiding under their bed. But they merely allow the spooks to change places. Now there are spooks who belong to The Earth. Or spooks who watch over the spooky designation called America. National spooks. Racial spooks. Even spooks who guide the progress of science.
Being spooked out can be given a positive spin: it's called being "spiritual." Or a negative one: the work of the Devil.
Why does this exist? This haunted dimension. There are answers for that. Psychological, philosophical, scientific, sociological, historical, and so forth. Take your pick.
But whatever explanation you prefer, you'll never wholly obliterate existential spookiness.
Almost halfway through an unusual book. I thought it was time to buy it on Amazon, and have a gander. The title bothered me. But I realized that this might be a good reason to draw closer. Why should I be affected by the title of a philosophic work written over 150 years ago?
"The Ego and His Own" by Max Stirner. A translation from the German "Der Einzige und sein Eigentium." Apparently a more literal translation would be "The Unique and its Properties." A subtitle reads "The Case of the Individual Against Authority."
Lately I choose books that deal with freedom and its obstacles. For two reasons: keeping this aging brain in shape, and because I want to understand the best way to become a better artist.
Hegel's "Logic" is in the mail and will arrive at the studio by the time I finish with Stirner, who in fact was a student and intellectual foe of Hegel and the "Young Hegelians." Marx apparently wrote his famous manifesto after reading and being adversely affected by Stirner.
So? Well, I like what Stirner has to say. Actually Max Stirner is an invented name. A nom de plume. His birth name was Johann Schmidt. Or John Smith, in English. Pretty tame. I've always found that people who rename themselves fall into a certain category: they have a burning need to distinguish themselves, to stand out from the others, to make themselves seem more special, with a thirst for fame and money.
John Smith must have felt a bit helpless and inadequate. Max Stirner was a great choice for an alter-ego. A little like mild-mannered Clark Kent becoming Superman. I get it. Makes sense.
Actually my German grandmother's maiden name was Schmidt. Could I be related to the revolutionary author? When she told me this fact I noticed that she was looking downward, somewhat shyly, as if she, too, was aware of the commonness of being a mere Smith. But Schmidt and Smith come from "smite," like the work of a blacksmith. A strong man in the village. Thor. Vulcan. Nothing to sneeze at.
Back to the book. I noticed a strange thing. Even though Stirner had no knowledge of a subtle form of Buddhism, and in fact he disparages Asian thinking, his central thesis is very reminiscent of Zen.
I googled Max Stirner and Zen and, sure enough, found a recent paper written about this unusual connection.
Both Zen and Stirner emphasize the individual's rare success at attempting to rid itself of alienness. Humans are unique but hardly anyone is able to fully realize this. No one lives this most important truth. Everyone is caught and pinned down by alien fixations. Who is uniquely free?
My father was a large, quiet man. A civil engineer by education, and the president of a construction company specializing in heavy industry. It was started by my grandfather in the 19th Century and continues today.
"We're . . thinkers," he said, looking sidelong at me, from under his heavy eyebrows.
Really? I didn't quite know that. It would have explained his seriousness and his reluctance to engage in idle chatter. A man of few words, but each of them carried weight. I can probably recall every sentence he aimed at me. They wouldn't fill more than twenty pages. Maybe closer to ten. His solid reserve seemed very disconcerting. How did he manage those long silences? Maybe he was thinking hard. About what? Probably about business problems. And some other issues.
I can understand him better today. I think a lot about painting problems. Which are tied to major life problems. I try to discover where they intersect and how they shed light on each other. How else would I be able to avidly paint nearly every day for nearly sixty years?
A canvas answers many questions but then raises many more. It's a long essay. A series of epigrams loosely bound to each other.
If my father was a silent thinker my mother was an expressive rambler. I must be a combination of the two, with something else thrown in.
Take the above painting. I completed it yesterday. It's an image of my fervid brain. How it cycles through its favorite themes hour by hour.
Does it get anywhere? Does it arrive at anything? I used to imagine that it does. But today I have my doubts.
If we step far back and gaze down at the track of a life it wouldn't look that impressive. Just a snarl of lines, crossing each other, over and over.
A spinning top that starts out whirling like a tornado only to slow . . . wobble . . . and fall over on its side.
I think about the problems of the world and how they are affected by pairs of connected humans.
The most primitive basis of society is two people. These two exchange everything always. They gradually form alliances with other pairs until the world becomes as we know it today. Separated into cultures that reflect through a glass darkly the fundamental dynamic of the original two.
Expansion and developing complexity diminishes, dilutes, and deforms this primal unity until it's a mere shadow of itself. The world evolves into an intensely heterogeneous multiplicity at variance with itself. Harmonious reconciliation becomes very challenging. As if everything must come to a halt and start over.
"So then as far as true love goes it must have these two principles," I said to my daughter. "Total sharing and mutually satisfying, sober kissing in the clearest light."
"Yes, this is necessary." From a combined male and female perspective. We're discussing ideal inter-communion.
"Each of the two conditions is necessary but insufficient by itself."
"Right. A great kisser may in fact be selfish and unwilling to radically share all."
"Or, on the other hand, a person may be eager to fully share but is unable to be passionately kissed."
"Yes. Both conditions must be met, or true, perfect, love is unable to be born."
"Well, it looks easy enough. A lot of people must truly love each other. On the other hand, there seems to be a sizable number who attempt relationships that can never qualify as ideal love. A major cause of this bogus, corrupting style is economic inequality. Rich and poor can never love each other. The rich will cleverly exploit the situation, and the poor can only pretend to love. They're permanently at odds. True love is neither bought nor sold. It can only exist by fully sharing. Erasing all egocentric withholding."
" . . . and mutually, freely, kissing."
"But think how hard that is for a rich person. They say it's no crime to be poor, but it might be a crime to be rich. If not a crime then an irresistible temptation to take advantage of the poor. Which is a vice, a kind of degeneration, if not always a crime."
Dante is continuing to surprise and impress her father. Her work already looks masterful, but she's only in the larval stages. Also, she's so cool and calm about it. Unlike her parents, who, although talented, were given to endless fits of rage and emotional storms.
All this makes me wonder. It definitely takes generations to make an artist. This is more true than ever. In Hollywood many people get important jump starts in life because their parents or even grandparents came to LA seeking to make their way in the available creative fields.
When the parents ended up in some ancillary job barely touching on the arts it still matters for the following generation. The baton is handed on, even if the next hand reaching out is slow to grasp it.
An artist's destiny is fateful. It's steeped mainly in dread as well as a little exhilaration. I've fought against my destiny, and my daughter has done the same with hers. Although less violently. Not to mention signs of it already appearing in my grandson.
An artist's life is only worse when it's a life denied. When a gifted artist refuses to be an artist and settles for something non-creative. It then becomes nearly suicidal. A most unspeakably miserable life. Dragged out in tormented, smoldering, bitterness. Look away . . .
So much sadness circles around a painting, song, or poem. Like a pack of howling wolves.
But the world's disapproval simply adds fuel to the fire of divine genius. It can extinguish weak flames but it turns strong ones into massively all-consuming wildfires.