zenpundit.com » Character

Archive for the ‘Character’ Category

Worlds within the world: studio of Kiefer, mind of Vollmann

Monday, February 24th, 2020

[ by Charles Cameron — the worlds within this world are to be found in the workshops of Anselm Kiefer and William Vollmann ]
.

Artist one of two: Anselm Kiefer:

Kiefer devoted himself to investigating the interwoven patterns of German mythology and history and the way they contributed to the rise of Fascism. He confronted these issues by violating aesthetic taboos and resurrecting sublimated icons. For example, in his 1969 Occupations series, Kiefer photographed himself striking the “Sieg Heil” pose. Subsequent paintings—immense landscapes and architectural interiors, often encrusted with sand and straw—invoke Germany’s literary and political heritage. References abound to the Nibelungen and Wagner, Albert Speer’s architecture, and Adolf Hitler.

Interwoven patterns? The Nibelungen? Albert Speer?

Seraphim? Jacob’s ladder, on which angels travel up and down? And in this time of nuclear and gas chamber holocausts, have they abandoned the ladder?

Seraphim is part of Kiefer’s Angel series, which treats the theme of spiritual salvation by fire, an ancient belief perverted by the Nazis in their quest for an exclusively Aryan nation.

Spiritual salvation by fire?

Okay, This fellow has the kind of dark mythological intensity that interests me. Let’s take a stroll through this man’s world — a deeper dive into his studio.

In we go:–

It was like a world inside the world. Huge metal slabs were leaning against the walls. Helter-skelter around them, on racks with wheels, stood large paintings of oceans and beaches, rivers and meadows, mountains and forests, some covered with corroded ravines of lead. Vitrines in every size were standing everywhere, filled with the strangest things: the roots of trees, rusty hammers, little clay pigs. Shelves that ran the length of the hall were stacked with balance scales, hooks, rifles, stoves, snakes, torpedoes, piles of bricks, heaps of dried flowers, even whole trees. There were more full-size fighter jets and a cage that was maybe 300 square feet that was filled with golden wheat and what appeared to be the cooling tower of a nuclear power plant with a bicycle dangling down the side.

Torpedoes! Whole fighter jets! Whole trees!

Kiefer‘s paintings, we learn, are overwhelming, dark and vast — Seraphim‘s a good example — enforcing silence before their enormous intensity. And then, suddenly — watercolors, “brimming with color — sparkling blues and brilliant reds” as bright as the moments of a life, and thus as intensely personal as the dark vast paintings had been impersonal and overbearing — as is, one is forced to admit, our century.

He’s an artist — exhibit number one.

**

Here’s exhibit number two: the mind of William Vollmann..

Deep dive number two:

Bill greeted me warmly and showed me around the art-making area of his bunker, where he has a power engraver—he was working on a suite of Norse block prints when I visited—and where he prints his Dolores photographs using an arcane 19th century method called gum bichromate, which takes up to 28 days to produce a single print. Then he led me to the walk-in.

What’s in here?

This is the meat locker, where Dolores’s parts are. When the electrician wired it up, he asked, “What do you use this for?” I said, “Oh, that’s just where I keep my victims.” There was a long silence….She’s got her dresses here and I have my bulletproof helmet and various stuff from my journalism in there

Lecter, Hannibal? “That’s just where I keep my victims”?

Vollmann, like Kiefer, is possessed of a world both dark and sparkling bright. The sheer extent of his variety, too, is impressive, overwhelming.

I have in my room at the Pine Creek Care Center only two smallish bookshelves, and in them one book of Vollmann‘s: Kissing the Mask: Beauty, Understatement and Femininity in Japanese Noh Theater. I mean, how not?

Kissing the Mask is so packed with beauty, understatement — erotics, Japan, Noh, Vollmann himself, Noh backstage, behind-the-scenes, photographs — ” a string ball of thoughts” — I’d like to say “torpedoes .. even whole trees” but Vollmann‘s world within the world is other than Kiefer’s, as though there were room for two worlds within our world — three perhaps — though I’ve yet to encounter the third — “with Some Thoughts on Muses (Especially Helga Testorf), Transgender Women, Kabuki Goddesses. porn queens, poets, housewives, makeup artists, geishas, valkyries, and Venus figurines” Vollmann addsall this in small print at the bottom of the book’s cover.

And Valkyries!

It takes my reading glasses and a Sherlock Holmes magnifying glass to read these days, and my copy of the abridged, one-volume Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means is in storage — a book fate which I both mourn and feel intense gratitude for.

When Vollmann turns to consider violence — “to establish a moral calculus to consider the causes, effects, and ethics of violence” as Wikipedia has it — he spends twenty and more years on the task.

The abridgment, Vollmann says, he made in half an hour, for the money. Truth to the work’s title is to be found in the $700, seven-volume original set, 3,500 copies. Even with dollar-store glasses and Holmes’ magnifying glass — enhanced with the option of bright light the better to read by — seven volumes is beyond me, as 700 pages of the condensed would be.

And there are yet other Vollmanns, with other worlds..

**

Oh but let Van Gogh have the last word, eh, Vollmann?

Vincent Van Gogh, Japonoiserie, The Courtesan

**

Sources

  • Guggenheim, Kiefer, Seraphim
  • NYT, Into the Black Forest With the Greatest Living Artist

  • 3 am, becoming dolores: william t. vollmann exposes his female alter ego
  • Wikipedia, William T. Vollmann

  • Metropolitan Publications, Van Gogh in Arles
  • What you’re blind to will bite you!

    Saturday, December 21st, 2019

    [ by Charles Cameron — note, incidentally, that Scientists have gotten predictions of global warming right since the 1970s ]
    .

    Well, first let’s note that the UN a few days agoissued its Emissions Gap Report 2019 which is variously described as “bleak” (Washington Post) and “bleak (NY Times) — so it’s presumably bleak. The UN also issued:

  • UN, 10 things to know about the Emissions Gap 2019
  • UN, Visual feature: The Emissions Gap Report 2019
  • Still bleak.

    But at least we have simple forms in which to absorb the message.

    **

    Meanwhile, Yale has very helpfully packaged 24 recent reports on climate change, and there’s still one missing.

    Let’s see:

  • Yale Climate Connections, 12 major climate change reports from 2019
  • Yale Climate Connections, 12 reports on carbon pricing, climate security, and more
  • And look, they cover everything from Interventions to Increase the Persistence and Resilience of Coral Reefs to Canada’s Changing Climate, lessons on action against tobacco and fossil fuels to the State of Climate Adaptation in Public Health of 16 U.S. States, and Malaria eradication within a generation to FEMA on Community Resilience and so Are the public ready for net zero?.

    Tet last two come closest to what I think is missing. They consider human response to climate change in light of the climate change crisis — but they’re still exterior to the humans they consider — they’re from the realm of sociology, and I’m interested in the corresponding interior states, the psychology of human response. And in particular our capacity for denial and indifference, our stickiness / stuckness.

    What’s the sludge through which we must make our way to awareness? Why does this feel so very much like trench warfare in World War I, re-enacted in mind?

    Sex and Violence in Tibetan Buddhism, book review

    Saturday, October 5th, 2019

    [ By Charles Cameron — rise and fall, hubris and nemesis, a frequent pattern in human existence ]
    .

    Sex and Violence in Tibetan Buddhism: The Rise and Fall of Sogyal Rinpoche
    by Mary Finnigan & Rob Hogendoorn
    Jorvik Press, 199 pp. (2019)

    The book benefits enormously from having twin authors — Rob Hogendoorn provides invaluable biographical and analytical material, credited to him as it occurs, while Mary Finnegan‘s contributions relate, in her own voice, her experiences. Both authors are Buddhist practitioners, both have researched the sexual abuse claims around Sogyal for years — claims which have since been admitted by Rigpa, Sogyal‘s teaching organization.

    **

    Mary Finnigan & Rob Hogendoorn‘s book title hits two human keynotes. You’ll find them intertwined for crowd-pleasing reasonsd in Game of Thrones:

    It’s a question that’s been asked of Game of Thrones as long as the HBO series has been on the air: Why so much sex and violence?

    But Tibet? Perfect Tibet of our wishes? Tibet of the revered Dalai Lama? Tibet of the lamas who create intricate mandalas of colored sands — then brush them away in a gesture of impermanence and carry the dust to rivers which wash them out to sea? Shangri-La — in fact not fiction?

    There’s a lot that’s wonderful to Tibetan Buddhism, and the better it looks and actually can be, the easier it is for non-Tibetans — us Westerners — to fall for the trap of projection — to believe, in this case, in the impeccability of Sogyal Lakar, sometimes titled Rinpoche, or Precious-One.

    **

    It’s unwise in general to speak ill of the recent dead, and Sogyal died in August 2019. Yet his story must be told, because unhappy though it is, the telling can help us avoid the illusion of a supposedly great lama — second only to the Dalai Lama in popularity in the west — who was in fact assaulting his female students sexually on numerous occasions across decades.

    That’s the tale Mary Finnigan, herself a practitioner of DzogchenSogyal‘s own form of Tibetan Buddhism — details in collaboration with her co-author Ron Hogendoorn in this book.

    The accusations against Sogyal, of “sexual, physical and emotional abuse”, led to the Dalai Lama declaring Sogyal “disgraced”. The Charity Commission for England and Wales disqualified two of the Trustees of Sogyal’s  organisation, the Rigpa Fellowship, in the UK because they covered up “knowledge of instances and allegations of improper acts and sexual and physical abuse against students”..

    **

    But although sex, violence, and sexual violence are at the heart of the anguish Sogyal inflicted on unwary students, there’s another side to Sogyal‘s story that Finnigan and Hogendoorn illuminate — the story of the son of a wealthy family, in contact with a senior Dzogchen lama and taken under his wing, who learned little that might have qualified him to be a teacher of that tradition, yet who managed to wangle his Tibetan nationality into the appearance of a gifted and highly educated lama on his arrival in England.

    It’s a fascinating and heart-rending story — heart-rending is the word used by the New York Times in its obit for Sogyal — throwing light on Tibetan Buddhism itself, an astonishing mesh-work of visualizations and compassionate insight; the vicious politics that have long existed within the cloak of lamaism, and which the Dalai Lama has partially uncloaked; an archaic gender differential as power differential; and in general, eastern wisdom meets western credulity.

    **

    Sogyal‘s wealthy family connection gives him access to a high lama, Chokyi Lodro, and his presence at Lodro‘s side gives him in turn the title of Tulku, which often but not always signifies the reincarnation of some previous high lama, and is always a term of respect.

    An authentically scholarly Tibetan meditation master, Dudjom Rinpoche, knows Sogyal has little to no education in the finer points of Tibetan philosophy or meditation, but considers him someone a western student might pick up some hints from — crossing the cultural divide as it were.

    Sogyal , moving to the west, is on his way.

    **

    The years pass, just being a Tibetan guru in the west is sexy in the broad sense in which Lamborghinis and orchids are sexy: scholars of religion call it charisma. And when young and impressionable women become devotees of supposed high lamas — and when there are rumors, not without foundation, of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism including tantra, or spiritual-sexual practices, feelings and expectations can get very confused.

    The main thrust of Mary and Rob’s book is to tell the rise and fall of Sogyal Lakar, his rise by that wider “sexy” quality we term charisma, his fall by discovery of the abuses of both spirituality and sex he’s inflicted on so many of his students across the years. I won’t go into the details, it’s their story to tell, and they tell it with the probing integrity of journalists as well as the sincerity of practitioners.

    **

    It has to be said that young Western women stood in line to sleep with Trungpa [“a formidably intelligent iconoclast” meditation master] and were usually eager to oblige with Sogyal. They became known as dharma groupies and sex with a Rinpoche became almost as much of a status symbol as plaster casting Mick Jagger.

    Oh, Mary can write!

    The problem was the abuse at Sogyal‘s “feudal” court.

    **

    The Heart Sutra of Mahayana Buddhism teaches something often translated:

    form is emptiness, emptiness is form

    where emptiness is better understood as <em>void, and void as devoid of self-establishing nature — so that these lines might be rendered:

    Form is devoid of self-establishing nature,
    absence of self-establishing nature is form,

    **

    Sogyal — no great meditation master, it would seem — has another form of emptiness. Whatever he may have thought, he lacked that compassion which is the fruit of deep meditative practice. And so he was able to enact violence on his students.

    But we may witness that emptiness in another arena, that of scholarship.

    Early on in Sogyal‘s time in the west, Dudjom Rinpoche is giving a talk to a hundred eager students, packed into a room intended for an average London family, and Sogyal is translating for him. Mary was there, sitting next to her then boyfriend John Driver, a linguist gifted in Tibetan, and noted that John was frowning. She writes:

    During the first lunch break, John steered me into a cafe down the road. He was quite angry.

    “Sogyal is not translating correctly,” he said. “Either he’s interpreting Rinpoche’s words into what he thinks is suitable for Westerners or he doesn’t understand what Dudjom is saying.”

    **

    It was a foreshadowing. Ever since Walter Evans-Wentz published an early English translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead in 1927, the gold-embossed green cloth volume has been a choice text to set beside the Chinese I Ching in pride of place on one’s desk or shelf. Come 1992, and The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying was published, updating the timeless Buddhist classic, personalizing it with some of Sogyal‘s own tales, made “accurate” to some degree by the inclusion of questions and answers from distinguished Tibetan masters such as Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and the Dalai Lama together with western masters of hospice living and dying such as Elizabeth Kubler-Ross — but, but–

    As one student who was around at the time put it:

    Could anyone who knew Sogyal imagine him being able to quote the German mystical poet Rainer Maria Rilke? Or the Sufi sage, Jalaluddin Rumi?

    No, the “editor” who’d have provided those quotes, and much more of the content and form, indeed the very flowing language of the book, would have been Andrew Harvey, Oxford scholar extraordinaire and author of The Way of Passion: A Celebration of Rumi and other works.

    So much for a great book — and it was and is great, and Sogyal deserves some, though by no means all, credit for it.

    **

    To sum up:

    Sex and violence are paired in the book’s title. The problem with the sex is not that it was sex — Sogyal was no more a monk than Trungpa was, and it was often consensual. The problem was in the tirades, the humiliations, the violence, the abuse — delivered under cover of spiritual authority in violation of trust across a power and gender differential.

    The scholarship is, well, Andrew Harvey‘s, and Padmasambhava‘s, and Kubler Ross‘.

    **

    I met Sogyal once. I asked him about the meaning of “skillful means”, and he responded “not entering or leaving a room through the wall, when there’s a door available.” He seemed pleasant enough. Trungpa Rinpoche I befriended at Oxford, and took to visit friends of mine at Prinknash Abbey near Gloucester: later he wrote that the visit had shown him the possibility of living the contemplative life in the west. He opened the first Tibetan monastery in the west shortly thereafter, Samye Ling in Scotland. And Mary is an old friend from hippie days.

    As I indicated above, Mary and Rob have a story to tell, and they can tell a story.

    Sogyal himself is no longer with us. He has entered, perhaps, the bardo, that liminal space between lives about which The Tibetan Book of the Dead — and to some extent its Sogyal reincarnation, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying — are written.

    Go, read.

    Eve of Destruction, eighteen years ago today

    Tuesday, September 10th, 2019

    [ by Charles Cameron ]
    .

    A quick reminder.

    It’s the title of Barry McGuire’s song, not it’s Vietnam era, nuke, and Jordan River contents, that concerns us here, reminding us that eighteen years ago to the day was the Eve of Destruction of the Twin Towers in NYC — an infant born eighteen years ago tomorrow would tomorrow be eligible for military service without seeking parental consent.

    **

    What a choice: to jump to one’s death, or burn alive in a kamikaze’d building.

    **

    McGuire‘s song.

    Usama bin Laden is long gone, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will be tried, if he still lives, in 2021.

    We remember the fallen, and honor our first responders and all who serve and save.

    Trump — King or Queen? A Biblical DoubleQuote

    Tuesday, September 3rd, 2019

    [ by Charles Cameron — a gender-bender for our times, and a caution against messianic projections on all too fallible humans }
    .

    Either way, Donald Trump:

    **

    To be frank, I don’t think Trump is either one — but Biblical excuses made by or on behalf of those Evangelicals who favor Trump‘s policies, and particularly his choices for the bench, are worth considering on their own merits.

    King David notoriously slept with Bathsheba after sending his friend, her husband, off to die on the front lines, and yet G*d seems to have favored and used him. Similarly, Cyrus wasn’t even one of the Chosen People, yet he seems to have been one of the people chosen.

    An aside — while I’m not sure if he originated the idea, it’s interesting that David Koresh, the leader of the Branch Davidians, named himself “Koresh” — “Cyrus” in Hebrew — and gave himself the title “sinful Messiah” because he felt both convinced / convicted of his sinfulness and called to a salvific, nay messianic, purpose. Esther? She was Jewish herself and beautiful, and protected the Jews from a holocaust back in the day.

    David exemplifies the leader with a shady, nay adulterous and murderous, past.

    Cyrus is the unbeliever in a G*d who uses him for his own purposes. And Esther is a ruler who preserves the Jewish people in a time of trouble.

    Each analogy in turn has its merits — yet as regular readers here know, while I’m an enthusiast for thinking via analogies, I’m also concerned to bring critical appraisal to them. I have to admit I don’t see a Cyrus, David, or Esther here, and tend to think the long history of messianic projections by enthusiastic crowds, and messianic pretenders who came and went, should be a caution for us.

    Trump looks to me like a man, is all. I wouldn’t trust him, and I don’t even trust myself.

    **

    Sources:

  • CBN (2016), Chaos Candidate: Is Trump a Modern-Day King Cyrus?
  • WaPo (2019), Holy Moses. Mike Pompeo thinks Trump is Queen Esther

  • Switch to our mobile site