he paused partway
foot still poised midair
thought this might be
the most honest way
to live out one’s days
The two suites which comprise However Fallible had humble beginnings and continue in the vein of two earlier texts, The Inconsolable and Delicate & White. Uniting snapshots from daily life with whatever glimpses might also be provided, The Revolution of Everyday Life probes the life of an everyman referred to only as “he.” His appears to be a Sisyphean revolution in which any revelation is more often than not merely that of his own limitations and failings, usually accompanied by a wry smile of recognition, hence the epigraph found at the beginning:
“Aren’t most of the trivial incidents of daily life like this ridiculous adventure? But in an attenuated and diluted form, reduced to the duration of a step, a glance, a thought, experienced as a muffled impact, a fleeting discomfort barely registered by consciousness and leaving in the mind only a dull irritation at a loss to discover its own origin?” (Raoul Vaneigem)
Meanwhile, unlike him, the anonymous, and almost mythical, “she” does not find herself in the world, but of the world; in this, her revolution truly reveals The Beautiful Foolishness of Things. So, while the Revolution is comprised of my own photographs, for the Foolishness i have recruited the impressive talent of Romanian photographer Roxana Ghita. Roxana herself explains the inner workings of the project far better than i ever could, so below i include her own musings on our collaboration, and the notion of what she has come to coin “photo-waka.”
Let me just add that while there is a subtle and important distinction between the almost tragic little revelations of the Revolution, and the gentle openness, the Mitsein, which is unfolding in The Beautiful Foolishness of Things, the two are of a whole, each arising from and informing the other. The Foolishness is a being-with (Mitsein), though lacking boundaries, so that it spills out in all directions, in all beings and things, remaining indistinguishable, even mistakenly, for any but the most fleeting of instants. This Mitsein is why it was only possible for me to undertake The Foolishness as a collaboration. That said, it seems easy to overlook his struggles, his Revolution, and lose oneself in her; yet, like him, one always finds oneself again attending to the most mundane of affairs, though perhaps now the utterly ordinary may occasionally reveal itself as extraordinary.
In short, what is at issue here, what both distinguishes and unites the two suites, is the illusion of a closed self, and the unfurling and openness of a simple with. For, to be honest, i think that even that Sein—the very notion, however slight, of being—is still too weighty and deceiving. I do not know much, if anything about chado, the Japanese way of tea, but is this not what the tea ceremony essentially is—a pure and open with, like life itself?
“kissako” she said,
her kettle already full.
their cups will never be empty
nor their thirst.
*(Note: A literal translation of kissako is impossible, but Roxana explains it as: stop here for a while, drink a cup of tea with me, then you may go your way, but let’s enjoy this cup of tea now, together.)
* * *
that Foolishness, that lightness (also: instead of ars poetica)
by Roxana Ghita
“Let us have a sip of tea. The afternoon glow is brightening the bamboos, the fountains are bubbling with delight, the soughing of the pines is heard in our kettle. Let us dream of evanescence, and linger in the beautiful foolishness of things.” (Kakuzo Okakura)
The Beautiful Foolishness of Things is about simple things (joy is always simple). It has a gentle way of unfolding, its twofold vision entwined into a subtle contemplation of what is at the heart of what, essentially, is not, a gaze whose decisive sign seems to be, above all, the tenderness. The subject who becomes and the things which are met through tenderness, at a point that reveals their same, intimate nature: the vulnerability, ephemerality of being, always on the threshold of fading away. Our prayer for tenderness: the photograph, that one ‘takes’ of the world, an aggressive grasp of what faces us as ‘the other’, the word which is bound to reify—can they become a caress, as light as breath?
This is Her way. The Foolishness tells Her myth. A gaze which doesn’t imprison or impose its presence upon the world, but quietly awaits for presence to manifest itself as grace. A gentle withdrawal into the in-between, which, to paraphrase Dogen, shouldn’t be simply confused with nonbeing or forcefully asserted as being.
I had my fears, at the beginning, that Michael’s words and my images would fail to speak together—that ‘mitsprechen‘, wherein the voices become one, without sacrificing their own nature. I have wondered why this hasn’t happened, why, on the contrary, their speaking-together flows so effortlessly. This lies, perhaps—I have tried to answer— in the specific nature of what each ‘foolishness’ represents, and which could be called, if I am allowed to invent such a word, a photo-waka. I don’t mean that Michael’s poem is a waka illustrating the image, but rather that photograph and poem combine to form a peculiar kind of waka. In what follows, I will try to explain what I mean by this. If the Japanese poetry discussion is based on a series of essays I will indicate in the notes, the thoughts on photography are merely my naive… how to call them? musings which have no intention whatsoever to say something true or meaningful about photography in general: it is only my way of living photography as a path of spiritual experience, as a form of contemplation.
Waka is a classical form of Japanese poetry which relies on brevity (31 syllables) to articulate, in a single unit, a specific form of subjective consciousness which is, in fact, fundamental to all types of Japanese arts (representing, at the same time, a spiritual way, or path (geido). The essence of these arts is that they are centred on reaching an alignment, a perfect correspondence among the state of mind of the subject, the material used by a specific art and its expression (words, flowers) and nature. When this particular configuration is established, there emerges something which transcends it: a sudden experience allowing the subject to become aware, in Buddhist terms, of the ultimate Reality, the void pervading all being—the absence in presence, the emptiness in fullness, the discontinuity in the whole.
The ultimate source of creativity for the waka poet is what the Japanese call ‘kokoro‘—which could be understood as ‘pre-phenomenal mind’ or ‘awareness’, a state of subjectivity which can be neither grasped by cognitive activity nor articulated in any linguistic-psychological way. Toyo Izutsu writes: “As the mental concentration of the poet reaches the uttermost, out of the absolute serenity of his creative subjectivity showing no sign of vacillating this way and that—there, naturally and efortlessly, emerge, in spite of himself, poems.”
As far as I understand it, this is also the case with Michael’s process of creation, co-extensive with his Buddhist practice of contemplation, which allows – however not by intentionally seeking or forcing it to appear—the spontaneous manifestation of thoughts/words (omoi, kotoba) and feelings (yojo) from that all-pervading yet never phenomenologically articulated Self-Awareness. But, and I see here the first fundamental similarity between the two types of creation, isn’t photography born in exactly the same way (at least that kind of photography which fascinates me, the opposite of the conceptual approach): an intense yet effortless concentration of body and mind, which have overcome their duality, and thereby become the empty ground – empty exactly through or within the utmost fullness of being—allowing for that instant of revelation to take place, for something to emerge which transcends the photographer’s self and becomes the expression of reality itself? What happens in that moment is a kind of spontaneous ‘casting off body and mind’, to use Dogen’s famous phrase ‘shinjin datsuraku‘, experience which lies at the heart of the Japanese Buddhist contemplation. And the amazing thing in the case of photography is that the distinctions between hand-eye/tool (camera) are similarly abolished for that shortest instant of time. Everything melts into one gaze, one act of absolute concentration of creative energy.
Exactly as in the case of the waka poet, “vacillating this way and that”, or the mind taking the lead and obscuring the non-dualistic awareness which becomes manifest, leads to failure. One has to be totally present there, absorbed into that moment and act, one has to become the presence itself. That single moment when one pushes the button, that release of the shutter which reveals the fundamental discontinuity of the world inside the flow lies beyond conceptualization and, as such, cannot be explained but only approached as a ‘living experience’ – the same way Zen stresses the fact that one has to undergo the same spiritual experience expressed in a koan, for example, and not merely try to ‘understand’ it on a discoursive level.
The idea of discontinuity leads to another important similarity between waka and a photograph, in this interpretation which perceives them as living spiritual realities and not merely as dead objects, products of the intellect. Let’s take the waka first. Toyo Izutsu sees its specificity in its ‘field’-structure: its extreme linguistic condensation allows the poem to constitute an a-temporal unity in which every part is perceived simultanuously and a multitude of meanings reverberates at the same time, at every point of the ‘field’, ‘bringing into being a global view of the Whole’. Thus waka can be seen to represent a spatial expanse in which time, as implied in every succession of words articulated in a syntactic flow, is annihilated and the semantic content is given as a whole, at once. In this way, it may seem, waka tries to transcend the very nature of the material it is made of, since language manifests itself as a linear succession of words which can unfold their meaning only in a temporal sequence.
Yet what the waka-poet aims at, struggling with this intrinsic limitation of language, is given freely and naturally in photography. If time is annihilated in waka, time is held still in a photograph, suspended, and the different parts of the image are perceived instantly, as a whole. In a way, the photograph could also be understood as a non-sequential ‘field’ whose unity is grasped instantly, beyond the linguistic activity of the subject. Usually, the photograph is analyzed in terms of the past, a dead and frozen time which captures, in a way mummifies reality: from Barthes’s ‘that-has-been’, a footprint or a death mask, to Sontag’s “way of imprisoning reality, of making it stand still” or Hutcheon’s “all photographs are by definition representations of the past.” But if time is made to stand still, then subjectivity can thus break from the normal flow and find itself in an eternal ‘now’, experience the essence of time as time-being, or being-time (uji), as Dogen describes it—simultanously flow and eternal moment (an analogy would be, perhaps, the Einsteinian wave/particle nature of light). The past hours are absorbed in the I, they may “seem to be elsewhere but are actually in the absolute, eternal now.” Each particular moment of time embodies simultanously all the time-being of the world.
But speaking in terms of processuality, what actually interests me here: in that ‘now’ which seems to suspend time, the absolute of the moment when the button is pushed, there takes place an encounter between the creative consciousness and the world, which produces—or better—lets emerge a new reality, by its own accord. In that act, as I experience it, a hidden reality reveals itself, which is neither a merely mechanical copy of the world as it is, nor the expression of the human subjectivity, but something which incorporates and transcends both and embodies the time-being of both self and world.
When I said that I considered each separate foolishness to be a waka, I was referring exactly to this correlation between self and world, between spiritual realities and natural ones, which is the characteristic of Japanese Zen poetry. Because self and nature share the same essence, the Buddhahood, the nature references in the poem are meant to actualize “a state of subjective consciousness.” As I see it, my photographs showing things and events of nature play the same role which the images drawn from nature play in classical waka: Michael’s poems almost never contain nature-descriptive instances, but blend with the image to articulate a poetic-linguistic-visual field which sustains the contemplation of Reality.
For me, the Foolishness represents the living experience that only lightness and grace can offer a way out of suffering. And if I personally fail, there are others who don’t. There is hope. As Makoto Ueda puts it:
“Life is constant suffering for those who have not attained enlightenment; it is something to flee from for those who long for the life of a recluse. But those who have returned to the earthly world after attaining a high stage of enlightenment can look at life with a smile, for they are part of that life. Knowing what life ultimately is, they can take suffering with a detached light-hearted attitude—with lightness.”
most subtle of gestures,
or even with none,
all was accomplished.
Essays on Japanese aesthetics and philosophy on which I based my text:
1. The Theory of Beauty in the Classical Aesthetics of Japan, by Toshihiko and Toyo Izutsu.
2. A Study of Dogen by Masao Abe and Steven Heine.
3. Japanese Poetry: The Sketch of Metaphysical Perception, in Singing the Way by Patrick Laude.
Collaboration. The roots go back to the latin ‘collaborare‘, which means: to work with (‘com‘ + ‘labore‘). But is it possible that the work is no work at all, occurring as naturally as the flow of a river, and the ‘with’—a dialogue in the mystery of the encounter? I use Celan’s words here, his famous description of the poem (which, however, can stand for every work of art) as an interplay between solitude and the Other:
“The poem is solitary. It is solitary and on the way. Whoever writes it is given to it for the journey. But does not the poem by that very fact, therefore already here, stand in the encounter—in the mystery of the encounter?
“The poem wants to reach this Other, it needs this Other, it needs a vis-à-vis. […] The poem becomes—and under what conditions—the poem of a person who, as before, perceives, who faces that which appears. Who questions this appearance and addresses it. The poem becomes dialogue…”
(first two images © Michael Tweed, remaining photos this page © Roxana Ghita)