Saturday, 28 November 2015

Ravasi: Borges’ agnostic Christology


1691 words, 8 min read

I have just come across a great talk by Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi on Jorge Luis Borges, given in Cordoba, Argentina last October in the context of the Courtyard of the Gentiles and his receiving an honorary doctorate from the Universidad Católica de Córdoba there. Ravasi gives some beautiful examples from Borges' poetry that illustrate his approach to Scripture and Christ and where Ravasi underlines the richness of his understanding and the depth of his sincerity, which come from what Pope Francis speaks about as “periphery”. Note that the following is my translated transcript of the talk and that a more extensive version of it can be found here in Spanish.

To Borges, boundaries are always moveable and subtle. There is never an iron curtain between truth and fiction, between waking and dreaming, between reality and imagination, between rationality and feelings, between the essential and consequences, between concrete and abstract, between theology and fantasy literature, between Anglo-Saxon conjecture and Baroque emphasis.

Among his readings, an undisputed primacy was given to the Bible, as he had confessed: “I must remember my grandmother who knew the Bible off by heart, so I could enter literature along the way the Holy Spirit.” His paternal grandmother was in effect English and practicing Anglican and it was her who introduced the little Jorge Luis to the Scriptures and to the exalted English language. During a talk given at Harvard, dedicated to the art of storytelling, Borges, extolling the epic poem as the oldest form of poetry, lead to a triptych of masterpieces for humanity: “The Iliad, The Odyssey and a third ‘poem’ that stands out above the others: the four Gospels ... The three stories of Troy, Odysseus and Jesus have been sufficient for humanity ... Even though, in the case of the Gospels, there is a difference: I think that the story of Christ can not be told better.”

Let us now leave behind this specific topic of the literary and existential panorama of Borges to focus on a narrower scope that is particularly rich, so much so that here has exercised a small legion of scholars. Here we will deal with the aforementioned passion of the author for the Bible and we will do so through two examples.

The first is the story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-16) that had a poetic evocation in a short composition “The Unending Rose” entitled, as Borges often liked to do by revisiting Bible passages, “Genesis IV, 8”:

“In the first desert it was.
Two arms cast a great stone.
No cry. Blood.
For the first time death.
Was I Abel or Cain?”
Next to it we must, however, place the broadest reading of this Biblical scene in “In praise of Darkness” where the two brothers meet again after the death of Abel in an atmosphere of the eschatological court, even though the scene is set in the desert and the origins of the world. They sit, light a fire, while the day comes to an end and the stars, as yet unnamed, light up in the sky.
“By the light of the flame, Cain noticed the mark of a stone indented in Abel's forehead and the bread he had raised to his lips fell before he could eat it and he asked whether his crime had been forgiven.

Abel answered:

“Did you kill me or did I kill you? I already cannot remember, and here we are, together like before.”

“Now, you must have forgiven me,” Cain said, “because to forget is to forgive. I will, too, try to forget.”

Abel replied softly:

“That's right. While the remorse lasts, so does the guilt.””
Some have seen in this text a relativist moral conception by which an imperceptible transition is performed between good and evil, true and false, virtue and vice. Actually here we instead witness a process of transformation or alteration that we have indicated above and that Borges performs to show the infinite potentialities of an archetypal text. The same text allows continual re-transcriptions and in this case the aim is a paradigmatic celebration of forgiveness that makes the crime vanish completely: revenge is erased by forgetting and through it, the blame of the other becomes dissolved. What certainly remains always active is the fluidity of historical human reality and, therefore, of ethics that, in vain - in the eyes of Borges - also the “inspired” word tries to compress into defined and definitive certainties.

The second example is linked to the figure of Christ as Borges proposes in some of his many texts dedicated to this fundamental figure of Christianity.
“The black beard hangs down heavy over his chest.
His face is not the face from the engravings.
It's harsh and Jewish. I do not see him
And will keep questing for him till the final
Day of my steps falling upon this earth.”
It was already in the twilight of his existence when Borges writes these verses of “Christ on the Cross”, dating them Kyoto 1984. They are verses of high spiritual tension, that all quote when they want to define Borges’ relationship with Christ, a hoped for encounter, but one that hasn’t occurred fully, bearing in mind that we don’t know his “last steps on earth”. Maria Lucrecia Romera wrote that “Borges confronts the tragic Christ of the Cross ... and not the [theological] doctrine of the Resurrection .. His is not the optics of the believer's faith, but that of the restlessness of the agnostic poet”. However, one needs to add immediately that the general observation made by the French writer Pierre Reverdy in his “En vrac” applies to certain of Borges’ verses: “There are fiercely harsh atheists who are much more interested in God than some frivolous and light believers”. Borges absolutely didn’t have “the fierce harshness” of an atheist, but his was certainly a more intense search than that of many pale and colorless believers. His restlessness was profound, hidden under the bark of a rhythmic dictation and streaked with disinterest, and even irony.

This is the intuition of Borges: the face of Christ is to be sought in the mirrors that reflect human faces. On the other hand, it was Jesus himself who said that everything done “to one of his least brothers”: hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick and imprisoned, is done to him (Matthew 25:31-46). Behind the, often deformed, contours of human faces hides therefore the image of Christ and in this regard, the writer refers to St. Paul for whom “God is all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28) . It is here, then, that we find Borges's invitation to follow him in this human quest for Christ in the faces of men:
“We have lost those features,
just as a magic number made up of ordinary figures can be lost;
just as an image in a kaleidoscope is lost for ever. We may come across the features
and not know them. The profile of a Jew on an underground train
may be that of Christ; the hands that give us our
change over a counter may echo those that some soldiers
once nailed to the cross.
Perhaps some feature
of the crucified face lurks in every mirror; perhaps the face
died and was erased so that God could be everyone.”
[Paradise, XXXI: 108]
Now, on the basis of Borgesian Christology, we undoubtedly find the humanity of Jesus of Nazareth who is born, dies, even proclaims himself Son of God, and, therefore, assigns himself a transcendent quality. The writer does not ignore this interweaving of divine and human, of absolute and contingent, of eternal and time, of infinity and the limit and, even while witnessing the side of humanity, does not hesitate to interpret Christ’s consciousness in a poem of extraordinary power, as is that of the original Gospel matrix that generates it.

Here the title is, certainly, more explicit still: “John I, 14” (in “In praise of Darkness”). The verse is cut from the that literary and theological masterpiece that is the anthem-prologue of the Fourth Gospel: “The Lógos (Word) became sarx (flesh) and made his dwelling among us.” A verse that is a counterpoint to the solemn opening words of the hymn: “In the beginning was the Lógos, and the Lógos was with God, and the Lógos was God.” (1:1). Let us consider how John's Lógos intrigued Goethe so much that in Faust he proposes a range of meanings to express its profound semantics: the Word is, certainly, Wort, word, but also Sinn, meaning, Kraft, power, and Tat, act, in line with the value of the parallel Hebrew word dabar, which means word and act/event. Let us read a few sentences from this surprising “autobiography” of the Word that is eternal (“Is, ​​Was, Is to Come”), but is also “time in succession.”
“I who am the Was, the Is, and the Is to Come
again condescend to the written word
which is time in succession and no more than an emblem. ...
I lived under a spell, imprisoned in a body,
in the humbleness of a soul. ...
I knew wakefulness, sleep, and dreams,
ignorance, the flesh,
reason’s roundabout labyrinths,
the friendship of men,
the blind devotion of dogs.
I was loved, understood, praised, and hung from a cross.”

During the round-table discussion after his talk, Cardinal Ravasi then made a very significant gesture of appreciation towards Borges:
"Borges could be the best patron of the Courtyard of the Gentiles. Because he is not only in the courtyard of the gentiles, and he is not only in the courtyard of the believers. He was, instead, on top of that wall that divided the two spaces. That wall allowed for a good view both from one side and from the other. And Borges is a bit of a believer, in his own way as he said, and also a gentile. And it is because of this that the Courtyard of the Gentiles that takes place here in Córdoba or in Buenos Aires, in his hame, is the best Courtyard of the Gentiles."
The patron [saint] of the Catholic Church's dialogue with non-believers is an agnostic!

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Antony Gormley: tools for carrying nothing

0401 quantumcloud ix 1999 001

3083 words, 16 min read

Ever since my first encounter with Antony Gormley’s sculptures, I have had a sense of great affinity with his work and later, as I started reading various of his writings and interviews, also with his thought. What attracted me to his sculptures initially is not verbalizable, but reflecting on it leads me to a recognition of shared experience and of shared values. And I am thinking here of existential and ontological values first, although not to the exclusion of moral ones.

Being in the presence of one of his pieces has always given me a profound sense of incarnation - of a beyond in the here - and of communion, of a blurring of boundaries. The latter is obvious in sculptures since his Domain series (and also in Quantum Could, Hive and other, later ones) but I feel it is also there in his earlier work that, at first sight, may suggest the polar opposite - isolation, separation, individuation. Already the Three Part Lead Bodycase works, which on the face of it are solid, lead boundaries, impermeably encasing individuals, are such strong pointers to that “darkness of the body” that Gormley presents as “objectless”, that they too bring out a sense of a collective, shared place - to which each one of us has access in their own bodies, open to encounter and communion.

Instead of talking more about how I see Gormley’s work, I’d like to share some of his thoughts with you, and encourage you to go an see his sculptures next time you get a chance.

To begin with, Gormley has a concept of art that is extreme (a matter of life and death), paradoxical (useless yet vital), but at the same time profound (potentially life-changing confrontation rather than illustrative decoration):
“Art is the way that life tests and expresses itself, without which we are already dead. [... A]rt […] is useless but vital; it is through art that we communicate what it feels like to be alive.” (Art In The Time Of Global Warming, 2010)

“Art is the means by which we communicate what it feels like to be alive - in the past that was mixed up with other illustrative duties but that was still its central function that has been liberated in the art called modern. Art is not necessarily good for you or about communicating “good things”. […] Making beautiful things for everyday use is a wonderful thing to do - making life flow more easily - but art confronts life, allowing it to stop and perhaps change direction - they are completely different.” (BBC Forum Questions And Answers, 2002)
Gormley’s art is very much also about meaning and has parallels with religion: “[My] work comes from the same source as the need for religion: wanting to face existence and discover meaning. The work attempts by starting with a real body in real time to face space and eternity. The body - or rather the place that the body occupies is seen as the locus on which those forces act.” (Concerning The Religious Dimension In My Art, 1987) While rejecting the Christianity of his childhood, which he recounts as something that he was “indoctrinated” with and where he speaks about how he was told that the Devil is inside him, Gormley looks to art as the means also for preserving what is good in religion, while excluding its past errors:
“I am interested in reviving this idea of presence. Can we have presence without the God? Can we resurrect the monument without bringing the shadow of bad history? The idea of an image that is open enough to be interpreted widely, that has multiple and generative potential for meaning but is strong enough to be a focus. How do we construct such an image? In its being someone’s can it become everyone’s? It has seemed for quite a long time obvious to me that the body can represent at the present time what abstraction did at the beginning of the twentieth century. That is, the ground on which all the seeds of emancipated identity are to grow: the last frontier, the inner realm. (Space has been probed but what do we really know of the body’s darkness.) The body, not as an object of idealisation that should be forced to carry allegorical, symbolic or dramatic readings, but the body as a place. The body not as hero or as sexual object, but the body in some way as the collective subjective - the place where we all live. The place on which the pressures of society are inscribed and out of which expression, language, feeling can come.” (Still Moving, 1996)
In the same interview, Gormley emphasizes communion as a purpose of art - also a deeply Christian teleology:
“Can we use the space of art for communion? A contact not only between ourselves but between ourselves and history? In doing this can we also derive the energy necessary to believe in our part in the construction of the future? Is it possible for art to provide a space that can be regenerative? Is it possible to use the space of art to resist this restlessness, this sense of fragmentation, this sense of alienation from self and from place?”
In fact, Gormely sees art as closely tied to beliefs about the value of life and its future not only in the context of an individual but of society and humanity as a whole:
“It is necessary these days to hold on to the crucial function art has in the continuance and regulation of life. It provides us with images and acts by which we identity ourselves but so often now in an unstable way. Art can be a focus for life by reasserting in times of vicissitude the central belie[fs] of a people. In tribal cultures it is a collective act whether in dance, carving, self-decoration that reasserts the body of the people and it is from this that the individual draws his or her power. Art and the practice of non-utilitarian skills is an act of will for the future and is as critical an aspect of survival as hunting or gathering food. What has happened to this urgency expressed in a collective creativity that projects into the future and ensures the belief necessary for life? It is not that we have lost it, but the repositories of dance, dream and art are dispersed into the hands of individuals who have responsibility not simply to a single family or tribe but as points of consciousness of the whole world.” (The Impossible Self, 1988)
The desire for community and an undoing of alienation and fragmentation through art is also a strong theme in Gormley’s 2010 talk about the specific role of art in the context of Global Warming, which is highly relevant also to the upcoming UN conference on climate change that starts on Monday in Paris and deeply consonant with Pope Francis’ Laudato si’ encyclical:
“Is it possible to re-think art and take it from this finished-object status and make it into a verb, a participatory, open space, a place of transformation and the exchange of ideas and reflection on our state and status? Can we use art as a way of investigating this perilous time? Can we change from our obsession with production values? Instead of the perfection of an Asprey’s catalogue or the gloss of the desirable branded object can we accept that art has to find its own raw and direct way of existing?

[In my studio w]e create here situations and objects that can become catalysts for a form of reflexivity that allows the viewing subject not simply to be a passive consumer of an already tested experience but for the experience of art itself to be testing ground for both the model of art and the model of the human subject. We have in making art a specialisation and its exchange as a matter of high monetary worth lost its central subject - the human being. In the art of the 20th century the Duchampian breakthrough was the examination of human labour and mass production in the ‘found object’. I would like art to re-focus on the lost subject.” (Art In The Time Of Global Warming, 2010)
I particularly like that Gormley self-applies his thinking about the state of the world - to his own most immediate environment: his studio. At the same time his perspective is anything but parochial and extends to a global scale [in same text as above]:
“In facing the challenges of global climate crisis in a culture which encourages us to do more, produce more, be seen more - my initial response is paralysing fear, I want to shrink, to go into a hibernating state with minimum muscular effort and put minimal demand on any kind of fuel.

This position is not helpful but perhaps is a good place to start to rethink one’s place in the world.

[...] We can no longer assume that more is better. We have to change our cultural heroes from generals and captains of industry to meditators and mediators, from Rambo and Terminator to Ghandi and the Dalai Lama.

Our tool systems, no longer stone, having separated us from the rest of the planet and biosphere, are now what will, without this revolution, destroy both. The notion that human life was going to be improved by an empirical march of tool making that would make life stronger, longer and safer is challenged by the fall out effects of this very technology. Technology that was in some senses made to make life better has now become the problem.”
Given the above context, let’s turn to what is at the basis of Gormley’s own work as an artist, a sculptor:
“I’m interested in art’s ability to bear witness, and I start with what I know, the bit of the material world in which my consciousness is embedded: my body. And I try to present that bit of material (to myself as much as to anybody else) in a way in which its trace is registered. So my work always starts with the idea of a body at a particular moment in a particular position, fixed by a negative just like a photographic negative, except that this is a three-dimensional negative and we call it a mould. I still think of a mould as being the most magical and mysterious thing. The mould is a testament, a proof of the existence of an object or a body and, for my sculpture, the particular body that I inhabit. […]

I think of my work as instrumental. My sculptures will be seen as very boring objects if you look at them in terms of Western art history, or a kind of desire to make beautiful objects or a “picture” of reality. But if you look at them as instruments then they can become vessels, empty things that can be used for a type of thinking or a kind of feeling, then they begin to get more interesting.” (Silence And Stillness: Antony Gormley Interviewed By Enrique Juncosa, 2002)
I get a great sense of humility from Gormley’s words: a starting from one’s own body, a witnessing first to oneself, a recognition of one’s work being an empty vessel (immediately making me think of Christ’s kenotic self-emptying).

This impression is further strengthened by seeing how Gormley explains the need for starting from the body, which represents common ground and which he sees as an invitation for others to inhabit his work:
“The issue for me is that it is impossible to make art that can truly be shared without acknowledging the body as a starting point of common experience. So I have to acknowledge the body and at the same time try to find a way of not representing it, or presenting it simply as an object. This is the reason why I’m not interested in the perfect copy, in representation. We probably never did it better than Mantegna or Masaccio, and anyway, photography does it perfectly. […]

[My sculptures] are tools for carrying nothing, nothing else than emptiness, shadow, darkness, carrying the condition of embodiment. They each carry the condition we all know. All you have to do is to shut your eyes when you are awake you are in the place that the bodyforms and the bodycases carry. […]

I completely disagree with the [...] proposition that the highest aspiration of art is to have a specific object that is purely itself and refers to nothing. I want people to inhabit my sculpture with their own lives, feelings, thoughts, emotions, whatever. I would like the logical and affective to be in the right balance.” (Interview With Pierre Tillet, 2008)
A final point in this thread is also that Gormley sees art as non-elitist, as a landscape open to all:
“We could say that for most of European art’s progress, it’s been about picturing. Then in Modernism it turns to interpretation and deconstruction. And now, I think, we’re into a completely new phase in which art is about providing a place where the human subject is somehow able to concentrate on his/her own being. [...] The subjective experience of space-time, the condition of life, rather than being in some way the assumed background condition for refined perceptions of the object, now becomes a landscape in itself. And I think this is a new paradigm in the evolution of art.” (Interview With Hans Ulrich Obrist, 2008)
While Gormley has been extremely successful in his appreciation by the art world, there is an explicit desire in his thought to not be confined by it and to live “in the wild” instead:
“All art now has to be lost: to be an awkward interloper within life, that is its job. What Heidegger talks about in The Origin of the Work of Art, the idea that the temple is part of its landscape and the landscape part of the temple is an ideal, and we have lost it. This is a classical image of interdependence of site and object. And while I recognise this ideal, I think that sculpture does not have a home. For me, sculpture is a lost subject, an alien body that infects and interrupts the cohesion of place. The museum is just one place amongst many wherein you might find art - but not art at work but in refuge. I’m not against museums because I think they have a very important part to play in the memory of a culture. But before my work has any need to be in the museums it has to have a life, it has to have adventures in the real world. For me, art has to be part of everyday life and every one of my pieces is an attempt to look at a new context and say: how can I deal with this opportunity?” (Interview With Pierre Tillet, 2008)
Gormley then positions the scope of art even beyond inter-personal communication, between artist and viewer:
“I’m not so interested in formal validations of work, where people called artists make something called art that belongs in a gallery. It’s tiny the ecology and economy of the art world. Art is not simply human communication or a way of explaining ourselves to ourselves. I’m interested in art that speaks of our vulnerability in time, in the same way that a figure on Easter Island looks up at the sky somewhere above the horizon and is evidently not a substitute for me speaking to you. It’s not about communication between human beings; it’s about communication between human beings and deep time and deep space. This is the broader horizon that I’m interested in positioning the work against. I want to make an art that has to do with survival, that thinks about where human beings fit in the chain of being, that asks who we are, and where we’re going...well, these big, big questions.” (Silence And Stillness: Antony Gormley Interviewed By Enrique Juncosa, 2002)
On the basis of the above, it should come as no surprise that Gormley is an admirer of Teilhard de Chardin, whose concepts of a continuum between matter and spirit and of an evolution towards collective consciousness bear strong resemblance to his art:
“The Internet, for better or worse, is an objectification of Teilhard de Chardin’s idea of the communion of human mind - the noosphere, which is the third encirclement of the globe, the first being the biosphere and the second the atmosphere. With this possibility of instant communication, created by a non-space that is everywhere, the idea of place becomes very important.” (Still Moving, 1996)

“I love Teilhard de Chardin’s idea of the ‘Noosphere’; the idea that there is a deep connection between the mineral and the mental. This has everything to do with sculpture. But in some way the history of material transformation on the planet is a progress from slower, less complex forms to faster, more complex forms and that, in some way, human consciousness is a kind of atmosphere. He calls it ‘Noosphere’ - the idea of an encirclement of the entire surface of the globe by ‘mind’. I think that mind is collective; a collective subjective and one of the tasks is to make that collectivity more apparent.” (Interview With Marjetica Potrc, 1994)
To conclude, let’s look at how Gormley positions his own work in such a continuous world view, speaking about the Earth in not dissimilar ways to St. Francis’ Canticle of Brother Sun:
“Sculpture is a direct way of allowing mind to dwell in matter. It is a means of becoming aware of the connections between matter, space and time in a way that complements (but is completely different from) the connections that science has demonstrated. I firmly believe that we are part of a chain of being and that sculpture is a way of providing instruments in which our place within it can be tested, made manifest and perhaps transformed.

Where does the world begin? Of course we can make it moment by moment and most intimately in what we call the self - but world and self cannot be separated - they are continuous. Where consciousness ends and the world begins is not so easy to define. We are, after all, borrowing our bodies from the earth and is it not likely that the earth knows more of us than we of it? Nothing is ever lost.” (Present Time, 1996)

I'd also recommend a great BBC documentary about Antony Gormley that has only come out recently.