Losing yourself in the work.

bill and phil

New York Times carried a story about the renovation of intricately detailed Tibetan murals in Nepal. Looking at the photograph of the work in progress, I perked up. What I saw seemed like something from another age. Anonymous, selfless workers doing what the original artists had done, recreating an image that embodied an entire system of peaceful, life-affirming values, as well as a moral code to make those values a template for daily behavior. It was an image meant to have meaning for centuries, or, actually, for any time and place—no one who painted the image then, and no one recreating it now, suspected that the Buddhist truths behind it could be superseded by something new. None of them, for example, suspected that we would some day discover that we aren’t mortal (sorry Ray Kurzweil), life isn’t painful, or that there’s no reason to overcome our own worst tendencies. The work is meant to be a visualization of eternal verities, not temporal realities, or, worst of all, historical concerns.

When the Metropolitan announced a whole new wing devoted to Islamic art, I had the same feeling of kinship, not so much because it’s spiritual art but because of the physical demands of the actual craftsmanship. In both cases, the artwork is enormously time-consuming, requiring great patience and concentration. It’s form embodies the immersive experience of making it: the outcome is intricate, symmetrical, rooted in pattern, a kind of mandala—a symbolic representation of wholeness. Completion, balance, symmetry, order are qualities of mind for someone creating the work, and formal qualities in the work itself. The art requires selfless submersion in the effort, rather than an assertion of the self through some kind of expression of individuality. It’s almost taken for granted in this age that art is meant to be a form of self-expression, but my experience of it has been that it’s a long training in obedience to the demands of the work: and you don’t invent the demands. When I paint, it’s more about facing what I can’t do than whatever skills I’ve accumulated. The demands are imposed on you by a variety of factors: talent, the kind of art you’re chosen to make, and so on. Getting it right means struggling to discover what needs to be done, not expressing something you already know or just doing something you know how to do.

Which may explain my warm response to all this seemingly tedious work. Undoubtedly, it comes from having spent long hours, days, or weeks, attentively recreating the complex, colorful symmetries of a Persian carpet—my little personal taste of Islamic art—in some of my larger still lifes. I’ve always understood these rugs as big, user-friendly mandalas you can sink your toes into—a hint of the incredible complexity of the world, as well as the order within that complexity, the suggestion of the recursive, fractal patterns embodied in nature. Basically, you’re standing on a symbol of the universe, when you walk into a room with one of them spread out underfoot, and reproducing their patterns affords some of the same meditative calm and clarity that Islamic and Buddhist art offer to the workers who create it and those who gaze at it. For a moment, anyway, you can lose yourself in it, as you can in all great art. Which is also what happens when you struggle in life to simply see what’s there in front of your nose, especially when you’re looking in the mirror.

OK, so, this may seem a slight digression . . . but the other night, I was making a list in my head of movies that are in some way a remake of A Christmas Carol: It’s a Wonderful Life, Groundhog Day, The Game, and Family Man, and probably others I haven’t seen or don’t remember. Reading James Parker’s great piece in The Atlantic on Groundhog Day reminded me of my wool-gathering and got me thinking again about the movie. Here were my thoughts on this perennial mono-myth, which keeps getting re-embodied in new shapes and sizes as a movie with the same structure, hidden in a different story.

These movies are all built around the tale of a man who doesn’t see what’s actually around him, absorbed by his own compulsions and unhappiness, blind to the life he could have if he simply opened his eyes to the reality of other human beings. Groundhog Day goes a little further than any of the others, I think, not in terms of its effectiveness and its core truth, but in the subtle complexity of Murray’s inner progress. A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life build toward greater and greater tension about how much the main character regrets his choices in life and wants to have another chance at it, once he believes he’s lost everything. Groundhog Day plays with the idea that you can keep trying over and over again to get something right and then get what you want, but it won’t make you happy. (At one point it seems to be a movie about how practice doesn’t really make you perfect.) But it leads Murray’s weatherman to realize all that skill-building and all the craving behind it is pointless. Even if he had the ability to satisfy all of his cravings endlessly, it wouldn’t be enough to make him happy. It would be torture. Nothing has been taken away, as it is in Wonderful Life and Christmas Carol. Everything is given to him, completely. This is more sophisticated than the movie’s predecessors. (The Buddhist idea of rebirth is obviously suggested, but someone long ago also pointed out as well how the movie’s recurring day also mimics the successive “takes” of a movie scene when it’s being made, as well as video game respawning to try a certain stage of the game again and again.) Only when Murray surrenders to being trapped in a cycle of endless recurrence, when he despairs that it will ever make him happy—when he sees that what he once thought he wanted turns out to be a kind of torture—does he become selfless, other-directed, charitable, kind, and loving, without actually escaping the cycle of recurrence. It isn’t the threat of death that transforms him, but the horrible reality of getting anything he wants, over and over and over. It’s this nightmarish reality of endless chasing for satisfaction that he has to confront, accept and somehow transcend without being released from it. That’s a subtle shift in the myth and his transformation isn’t driven by fear and anguish over his loss, but by moving beyond despair to become a kind of everyday saint. And then he actually gets what he wanted, the woman, the mortal life he lost, but only when he’s become a servant of other people—when he loses himself. He gets what he actually thought he wanted, but wouldn’t have appreciated if he’d gotten it when he was still his former, discontented ego-trapped self.

Scrooge and Bailey get what they ought to have wanted, not what they originally craved. It bears no resemblance to their original greed for money and power or travel and freedom and glory, what have you. (Though I guess you could say any craving is just a substitute for the need for love and that love is what people really want, but I don’t think so with George. He thinks true love, marriage and family have waylaid him into a miserable, insignificant life of trying to get two nickels to add up to more than a dime.) Murray gets what he thought he wanted, but only after he understands what it actually requires—the loss of self. The equivalent of this would be Scrooge getting super-rich but only on the condition that he had to immediately give it all away and enjoy being a philanthropist.

These differences are minor, since all three movies deliver on the lesson of selflessness, earned through a redemptive ordeal, but Groundhog Day ranks at the top for me, because of the way it embodies the paradoxes of “wanting” and “getting” and the subtle way in which they layer in the narrative that Murray gets a chance to satisfy any desire whatsoever, he has all the time in the world to enjoy his pleasures, and he can have everything he thinks he craves and then some, (except for the love that will break the spell). Ironically, all he wants is to be free of his banquet of endless donuts and bacon (and money and sex and what have you). The threat for him is eternal life, while trapped by his own ego and its desires, rather than the death he craves at one point, but can’t make happen, no matter how many ways he tries to kill himself. (Kierkegaard suggested that despair is the desire not to be the person you are, along with the realization that you can’t escape yourself.) It’s a brilliant twist that embodies an even more subtle layer of truth about human desire. All of this is gravy for me, though, because just watching Murray is an end in itself.

This probably seems like an enormous detour from those murals in Nepal. But these movies seem to embody the same kind of philosophy that affirms selflessness as the source of what’s good in human life. Part of why I find both interesting is that, in greater or lesser degrees, the murals and those movies are works of art that embody values meant to be universal—applicable to any time or place. They are meant to express values that transcend cultural influence, aiming for what’s timeless and most fundamental about life. And they go for the highest of those universal truths: that selflessness is the root of all the other values in human life. It isn’t a stretch to see how Buddhist murals could express the same sort of values as Groundhog Day, but what about all the other great art I admire? I don’t think it needs to be yet another version of the Four Noble Truths. I think the greatest art either directly or subliminally embodies different levels of the root virtue of selflessness, simply because of the discipline required to create it. And also in the fact that, when you see it, you can—as I put it before—lose yourself in it. Regardless of what the imagery in a great painting conveys, the amount of time and concentration and patience it required to make is visible simply in the way it looks. You see it immediately, that time and patience and servitude. You have a direct and immediate sense of the time invested in one of Vermeer’s great interiors, at first glance. No matter who you are and where you grew up, I suspect that looking at a Vermeer would evoke a reaction similar to how any Flemish art lover in his time would respond to it. And regardless of all the masterful choices he made about light and color and subject, all of which magnify his world’s perfect and luminous order, you first have an almost physical sensation of the time and sustained one-pointed attention he invested into each painting. That in itself—the way he trained himself to pay such intense attention to what he was seeing and doing—was a form of self-forgetting. As Iris Murdoch put it: “Virtue is the attempt to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is.” She points out that making art requires exactly that kind of “unself-ing” in the process of simply making an object as perfectly as you can. You leave yourself behind. And, at the end, if it works out, you discover everything you need has been right there all along, right in front of you, like Bailey and Scrooge and Bill Murray’s weatherman. Which is certainly true, at least, if you’re painting a still life.

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