Saturday, July 30, 2005

ASSENTER'S NOTEBOOK: On the Necessity for Beauty

To what can a Dissenter give his assent? I choose to give my assent to beauty. I am struck by beauty. By struck I mean something more than touched. What might merely have touched me a few years ago may now move me to tears. I have always been touched at varying levels of intensity by beauty. But for the most part tears were reserved for tragedy or some especially sharp poignance. I could live with beauty, admire it, even be touched by it, but I don't remember being moved to tears by it. But now when there are tears, they seem to come less frequently from sadness or tragedy, more often from beauty or grace. What is also different lately is that I am struck by beauty at random moments impossible to anticipate, and moved more deeply, as if my perception of beauty has shifted. I may see as beautiful now something that would not have appeared so a few years ago. Till recently beauty has come most often in the non-human forms of wild Nature: mostly from landscapes: a sublime vista, the easy grace of a wild animal in its own wilderness, or a grotto in the forest where a stream pools. These days I am moved more frequently, more deeply, when beauty springs from human origins.

What occasioned this speculation was going to see "Granny Dances To A Holiday Drum," a concert presented by the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble. This is an exceptionally disciplined dance company, full of energy, enthusiasm, vigor and grace. For this concert the company included not only the ensemble of professionals, but students and children. Ms. Robinson performed, and two storytellers, Marta Barnard and Opalanga, rounded out the performance. Though Cleo Parker Robinson is justly famed, these performers do not live and work at the world's centers for dance, drama or other arts. Though they have traveled internationally, they are rooted in Denver, at Five Points, the heart of the ghetto. They perform in an old church refurbished for use as dance school, offices, and theatre. This holiday performance was not an anomaly in terms of my being touched. I have never been to a Cleo Parker Robinson performance that has failed to strike me profoundly by the beauty of some point in the program.

Sometimes I sit among others who are clearly enjoying the performance, and at certain times of obvious intensity we are all in it together, everyone touched, excited, moved; white kleenex pick up what light there is in the darkened hall. What is mildly disconcerting is that occasionally while others are simply smiling, moving slightly in time to the music and the dance, even laughing, I find myself adjusting my glasses on my nose with a finger, and surreptitiously wiping a corner of my eye.

I think what strikes me at such times is several kinds of beauty. There is the beauty of music, the beauty of bodies performing the dance, the beauty of color: lights, costumes, the various colors of skin; the beauty of the entire spectacle of sound and sight, energy, movement and color combined. There is also the beauty of an entire audience caught up for a time from the world, taken aside from the everyday. What one knows of an audience that size is that someone in it is facing real tragedy, some are simply bored with their lives, others frustrated by an unrewarding job or a difficult boss, others worried about their children or their spouses or aging parents...yet here we are, all of us, offered a moment of surcease, caught up by a robust beauty, taken out of ourselves.

There is more. I am no dance critic so I do not have the vocabulary to give these things their right names, but part of that beauty has to do with another sense of what is happening right before our eyes: we are witness to commitment and risk and compassion. I do not know if the actual steps are perfect; my eye is neither informed nor perceptive enough to discern that. A leap that seems perfect to me may feel three inches too low to the dancer or the choreographer. But whether a kick is perfectly executed is not the issue here. What moves me is a sense that everyone involved is giving their best, they are pushing their own limits physically, intellectually, emotionally, artistically, and running full tilt into all the risk that implies. There is a kind of courage involved in offering such a gift to an audience: “Here, this is not just what we can do, this is what we are.” It is a courage combined with compassion. The combination results in a kind of fierce, elegant beauty.

Part of what creates this beauty lies in the notion of appropriateness. There is no pretension here, no pseudo-sophistication. This is not a rich company with abundant financial resources. They have grown over the years, yes, but the costumes and the sets reflect imagination rather than wealth. They are appropriate not only to the demands of the program, they are appropriate to the resources available. The ensemble may sometimes, maybe often, wish for more, but they make what they have work for their purposes.

Dancers, I presume, are trained like actors to reflect and project the emotion that the scene and the score require. But what I am seeing on that stage transcends training. The energy and expression that comes from these dancers often represents more: pride, determination, a profound satisfaction in the work, in being able to give to others something of one's own bright pleasure in the beauty of the rhythmic task at hand. Who would not be moved by such a gift?

Another element in my being moved has to do with the humanness of this enterprise. Video or film would have edited our view to create an illusion of perfection that would have at the same time made the entire production inhuman. This was not just "live," it was life, straining with desire to create beauty, and there was nothing between the dancers' absorption in their creation of beauty and our absorption in the perception of beauty, nothing between us and grace.

For me that all translates into such beauty that even at innocuous moments that seem to endanger no one else, I am unexpectedly struck, caught off guard, moved. When I mentioned this to Rick, a friend from Alaska who attended the program with Lauren and me, he acknowledged a similar response. He'd seen two New York companies in recent months, and neither had moved him the way this performance had. But he also agreed that his own attitude had become more like mine in recent years: he, too, was struck by beauty. Then he ducked the issue and took refuge in his abundant good humor: "Your macho's leaking, Holthaus," he said, "You better stop at the service station and have your macho checked."

Maybe the strength of my response is only a sign of more years sloughing by, a sensibility rubbed tender by the losses that inevitably accrue over time. But there is a confusion buried here: loss may make one more tender, but it may also steel one to be less tender, or make one angry, bitter, or despairing. Loss in itself is clearly no guarantee of tenderness. Perhaps there is a watershed: the poise that grows as one matures begins to slip as one ages further.

I suspect, however, we come to see beauty because we need beauty; we come to the theatre or the gallery filled with an urgent necessity for the presence of beauty in our lives. In my lifetime the world has known some preeminent seasons of pain and terror, the absolute zero that marks events devoid of all compassion. Perhaps we have never been witness to greater pain in the world than just now, witness to so much that destroys beauty, would thoughtlessly wipe it out, or ruthlessly destroy it purposefully, knowingly. The malnourished children, the mass graves, the fouled and ugly environment lie before us everyday.

Perhaps the necessity for beauty now lies where it always has, in beauty's capacity for solace and healing. There is a profound solace in beauty. It reassures us that no matter how much pain the world is called to bear, there is something more… something that makes the world bearable for us.

What also strikes me forcefully about beauty is the recognition, borne home by both personal experience and observation, that not much is perfect or apt to be; that T. S. Eliot was right: "Between the idea/ And the reality/ Falls the shadow..." Thus, when one has an opportunity to observe an effort toward perfection made by persons unfailingly human as we all are -- an effort experience says is made in the face of certain failure -- that effort, no matter how homegrown or sophisticated, takes on a tragic aspect. Beauty achieved then, and offered to others, is a gift, an act of compassion like offering water to the wounded, and it can bend the heart to breaking, or lift it so quickly it swells as if from decompression sickness.

An old word for the bends is "caissons disease," a name that came from men who worked below the earth in caissons or tunnels and then came to the surface too quickly. If that is an apt metaphor for what I felt, then maybe I am simply too far down in my own life, burrowed in like a mole, or perhaps we all live under the weight of a world too filled with travail. When confronted suddenly with such light and beauty as was offered in this performance, the heart explodes.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

DISSENTER'S NOTEBOOK: Land Use, War, and the Dao De Jing

Chapter 29 of the Dao reads:

If someone wants to rule the world, and goes about trying to do so,

I foresee that they simply will not succeed.

The world is a sacred vessel,

And is not something that can be ruled.

Those who would rule it ruin it;

Those who would control it lose it.

In a commentary on that passage Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall, who are also the translators, have this to say:

The world is constituted by a boundless sumptuousness of strange and wonderful things that often contradict each other in their life-patterns. This complex tension is not disciplined into order by some external controlling hand, imposing its considered design upon experience. And yet the oppositions that exist among things in nature resolve themselves into a self-adjusting balance and harmony. The spirituality that is pervasive in nature, far from being a gift bestowed by some external source, is rather the flowering of this thriving harmony. In fact, this harmony is not only autogenerative and self-sustaining, but persists only as long as it remains free from calculated manipulation, well-intended or otherwise.

So much for the idea of land use management. Given our admittedly constricted point of view and understanding of the complexity of natural systems, we cannot possibly have enough insight to “manage” harmony as successfully as Nature itself can. Our effort is, at best, well-intended manipulation.

As for war, Ames and Hall continue their commentary:

When the patterns of nature are taken as counsel for political order in the empire, they teach us that the human world too will flourish if left to its own internal impulses. Coercive interventions from “above,” while perhaps temporarily efficacious, are, in the long term and in the big picture, a source of destabilization and impoverishment. It is thus that sagacious rulers stay close to the center, and simply oversee a world that can be relied upon to order itself.

Whether emperors bent on war, or land use managers bent on well-intentioned control, “coercive interventions” are a formula for failure. “I foresee that they simply will not succeed.”٭

٭ The text is A Philosophical Translation: Dao De Jing, “Making Life Significant.” Roger T. Ames and David L Hall, Ballantine Books, 2003

DISSENTERS NOTEBOOK: On Resolve, Strength, and Hsun Tzu

“The president is firmly committed to show resolve and strength,” said Scott McClellan, his spokesperson, a few months ago. In face of mounting pain, fear, death and loss of limbs among women and children as well as our military and theirs, “resolve and strength” are the characteristics our president chooses to display in regard to Iraq. Well fine. Great. Just great. The synonyms that come to mind for those words are “stubbornness” and “violence.” Perhaps “muleheadedness,” my dad’s word for it, and “terrorism.”

Resolve in the face of proven failure – not just George Bush’s current failures, but historically – is always rooted in ignorance, sometimes in maliciousness, or even madness. We learned long ago that violence begets violence. Another word that always seems to accompany both resolve carried too far and the violence it can create is arrogance. The root of arrogance is the same as the root of resolve in the face of proven failure.

Violence is also a proven failure, but it is Bush’s first choice of strategies, and yes, it appears to be increasingly the first, perhaps the only available strategy of our enemies as well. Far as I can read, it was never the first choice of Jesus, nor of Christianity as it grew out of the violence of its earliest times. Christians have always had to wiggle and squirm, fret and stew, over how to justify violence, because the heart of our faith does not justify it. Nor, contrary to popular belief, is it the first choice of Islam. Mullahs too have to stretch their intelligence and resort to twisted logic to legitimize its use.

But like every great idea that becomes an institution, both Christianity and Islam have their followers who subvert the great ideals of their faith to serve their own ends. At some point ideologues all become alike. Ideologically, the difference between George Bush and Mr. Sadr is about two millimeters. In terms of the means at their disposal, however, the gulf is immense. Mr. Sadr has only himself and his faith. But he puts his life on the line, in the face of the world’s only superpower, and gradually the country appears to be falling in behind him. Mr. Bush had the strongest country in the world behind him with all its military power, but has never put his life on the line for his country or his faith, and is gradually losing his country’s backing. Mr. Sadr’s militia puts their lives on the line because they believe in the cause. Mr. Bush’s soldiers put their lives on the line because they believe in a system that says honor lies in doing as they are told, and they are honorable young men and women.

Since we have learned not to expect more, I guess that’s what we, as a people without hope, have to settle for: resolve and strength, stubbornness and ever-escalating violence, ever increasing hatred toward us. Were we hopeful, we would pray that our president display some other qualities: wisdom, insight, understanding, knowledge, a desire for peace, a decent respect for others, compassion, integrity, honesty, candor…

We have not learned, or re-learned, what politicians knew over 2,000 years ago. Five hundred years before Christ, Confucius was wiser. Four hundred years before Christ, Mencius was wiser. Three hundred years before, Hsün Tzu was wiser. Confucius insisted that the first task of government was to call things by their right names. Mencius made a distinction between a mere king and a “true king,” and Hsün Tzu pushed that distinction further. To one who is not a true king, or in our case, a real president, he sounded this warning:

He who lives by force must use his might to conquer the cities that other men guard and to defeat the soldiers that other men send forth to battle, and in doing so he inevitably inflicts great injury upon the people of other states. If he inflicts great injury on the people of other states, they will inevitably hate him fiercely and will day by day grow more eager to fight against him.

Confucius, Mencius and Hsün Tzu all believed that a true king ruled by humane authority rather than military power and oppression. They were not pacifists, but they believed more in the power of wisdom than in the power of military arms. A true king’s authority lay in his humaneness and compassion, his moral authority and integrity. When he exhibited humaneness, his citizens loved him and tried to behave humanely as well. Thus the kingdom prospered and peace was maintained. If one changes the word king to president, Hsün Tzu might well have been writing about our own president as his policies unfold in Iraq. He continues:

Moreover, he who uses his might to conquer the cities that other men guard and to defeat the soldiers that other men send forth to battle must inevitably inflict great injury on his own people as well. If he inflicts great injury upon his own people, they will inevitably hate him fiercely and will day by day grow less eager to fight his battles. With the people of other states growing daily more eager to fight against him, and his own people growing daily less eager to fight in his defense, the ruler who relies upon strength will on the contrary be reduced to weakness. He acquires territory but loses the support of his people; his worries increase while his accomplishments dwindle. He finds himself with more and more cities to guard and less and less of the means to guard them with; thus in time the great state will on the contrary be stripped down in this way to insignificance. The other feudal lords never cease to eye him with hatred and to dream of revenge; never do they forget their enmity. They spy out his weak points and take advantage of his defects, so that he lives in constant peril.

If Hsün Tzu is right, the prospects for our nation’s future are chilling. But Hsün Tzu understood that there are alternatives to force that are more effective in achieving one’s aims: “One who truly understands how to use force does not rely upon force.”

What are the characteristics of a “real president”? Hsün Tzu lays them out for us:

His benevolence is the loftiest in the world, his righteousness is the loftiest in the world, and his authority is the loftiest in the world. Since his benevolence is the loftiest in the world, there is no one in the world who does not draw close to him. Since his righteousness is the loftiest in the world, there is no one in the world who does not respect him. Since his authority is the loftiest in the world, there is no one who dares to oppose him. With an authority that cannot be opposed, abetted by ways which win men’s allegiance, he gains victory without battle and acquires territory without attack. He need not wear out his men and arms, and yet the whole world is won over to him. This is the way of one who understands how to be a king.

So here we are with a president who is widely shunned, whose buccaneering even our allies avoid, and whose cobbled up coalitions have to be coerced.

Hsün Tzu even has a word for our immediate past Secretary of State, three of whose most experienced professional employees resigned after years of service in the State Department because they would not work for presidential policies they believed to be wrong. One, whose letter was published in the New York Times, even had the temerity to suggest that for the sake of his own integrity Colin Powell ought to do the same. Powell declined. Here is Hsün Tzu:

Though it may mean labor for the body, if the mind finds peace in it, do it. Though there may be little profit in it, if there is much righteousness, do it. Rather than achieve success in the service of an unprincipled ruler, it is better to follow what is right in the service of an impoverished one.*

Our president may cling to his resolve and his strength. The way he uses them, they are poor supports for his kingship. But he has not learned the way of a true king let alone the way of a real president. Who, even after 2,300 years has? So those other words I used above to describe a real president (wisdom, insight, understanding, knowledge, a desire for peace, a decent respect for others, integrity, honesty, candor…), do not arise out of hope, but from yearning. Is there hope of a president who has such characteristics? We do not have one now and my fear is that there is none on the horizon.

* The quotations are from Hsün Tzu: Basic Writings, Burton Watson, translator.