And this is the reward: that the ideal shall be real to thee and the impressions of the actual world shall feel like summer rain, copious, but not troublesome, to thy invulnerable essence. Thou shalt have the whole land for thy park and manor, the sea for thy bath and navigation, without tax and without envy; the woods and rivers thou shalt own; and thou shalt possess that wherein others are only tenants and boarders. Thou true land-lord! Sea-lord! Air-lord!
—Emerson, “The Poet”
I am a gift to the finders; for I lose everything, as if I had holes in all my pockets or the most slippery skin in the world. Perhaps it is because, as much as I adore things, there is some unexamined impulse in me that suspects, even like that much-maligned Descartes, that none of this is real (mundus est fabula — the world is a fable). From a more reasonable standpoint — and I imagine that this is probably a prime reason for the traditional prejudice against matter — I can see that the physical world, while real, certainly isn’t permanent. Everything beneath the moon will fade and rot and pass away, a reality which must have induced those who could not bear such alteration to create an elaborate defense of that which supposedly lasts, i.e., spirit or soul. If body and spirit were separate, the special pleading went, then the death of the body might not mean the death of the soul. Yet, it seems more likely nowadays, considering that all of us are carrying the material of ancient stars in our bodies, that it is the physical that survives our fleeting mortal particularities — in the form of cells, particles, star dust — not, in fact, some numinous individual soul or self. But as long as we are alive, we cling to our particular collections of matter and call them self, individuality, agency; this clinging takes the form of concern, creative energy, and love, and the continual challenge of attempting to make sense of impermanence, loss and change.
Without being inclined then to reject the reality of the physical world, feeling still the reverberating tingling of certain real knocks, burns, and falls as well as the lingering pleasure of a caress, a taste, a visual and aural harmony, let us say that, in my perceived cosmos, the physical has weight, sensation, texture, temperature, and quality — and that this physicality is something to be celebrated and enjoyed as much as suffered — and at the same time these physical characteristics and sensations are telling us, imparting to us, something, something about life, about how to make meaning, about something I will call spirit — a term expanded for me by a consciousness of the German word Geist, which encompasses definitions including mind, feeling, culture, the intellectual, as well as that more numinous realm usually associated with our English word “spirit.” The physical world impresses upon or influences the mind as sensory apparatus; but the particular mind, colored by its particular cast and propensities, by its physical (genetic, biological) and its possibly less explainable characteristics (i.e., temperament, will, imagination, desire) filters and chooses the way in which that given world is seen, read, understood. To admit to having a soft spot for this thing called spirit seems to suggest a disparagement of matter, but I would not want to associate myself with a society of anti-sensualist prudes, nor would I willingly affiliate myself with any ideology that sought to escape the mortal, beautiful, and awesome reality of the natural world, its reason-defying beauties and its sorrow-inducing fading, its horrors and its delights; and yet, I find myself often tempted, as I imagine you do, too, to drift away into an imaginary dream amidst the often mind-numbing reality of the everyday. And I also find myself asking the question of what it is that makes all of this materiality so meaningful.
I also know from experience that there is great liberation to be gained by throwing off the shackles of what often amount to imaginary material needs. By giving up certain things that many people see as necessary for survival, one reaps a harvest of hours, a bounty of time that might otherwise have been spent working for money. It seems worthwhile to relinquish certain physical conveniences or even creature comforts in exchange for the incalculable luxury of reflection, of sufficient margins wherein aesthetic experience, philosophizing, poeticizing can reverberate. While many may feel that they have to work five or seven days a week to insure their material security or may choose consciously to trade their days and nights for an uninhibited cash flow, a larger lodging, an expensive telecommunications device, a bottle of fine bourbon, I can play a queenly pauper blessed with an open day. An uninhibited flow of moments, sensations, and synthesis of physical and spiritual beauties, the infinite riches of nature and culture which belong, by right, to anyone who loves them, makes of them a priority, and makes room for them. While it is well argued that one’s primary physical needs must be satisfied before one can indulge in higher spiritual reveries (“First comes the feeding, then comes morality” —Brecht), I am not the first one to suggest that our current assessment of how much one really “needs” to consume or stuff one’s face or garage with is exceedingly out of proportion with the development of our moral, ethical, intellectual or aesthetic sensibilities and inner resources. The choice to value time, reflection, and culture over consumerism may not necessarily preclude prioritizing materiality, since the free experience of nature, for example, is — strictly speaking — no less material than a new coat (nature is matter); and yet, there is a way in which the experience of nature or of art or of love (physical love included), of anything that ought not be quantified, used, or bought and sold, is thought of, correctly or not, as spirit’s part.
While Thoreau argued that it might be better to sleep in a railroad box and thereby keep his days and nights free to dream, Théophile Gautier asserted in his preface to that great aesthetic novel, Mademoiselle de Maupin, that while a coffin would, indeed, be enough space for a man to “literally live,” to observe nothing but the strictest economy in such things were to turn all of Paris into a virtual Père Lachaise, i.e., a cemetery, where the supposedly living were doing little more than literally existing. Thoreau conversely sees a liberation in a coffin-sized box, noting that many of his countrymen living in larger, more comfortable houses bury the better part of themselves long before death (presumably under obligations, possessions, work). But Gautier, who complicates the equation by asserting that he would rather go without shoes than without poems, and that he would sell his breeches for jam, if necessary, was far from really having to consider the possibility that a railroad box might be the best means to afford the opportunity to make and experience poems — an experience unattainable by one of the more over-stuffed and prohibitively comfortable bourgeois he mocks for their utilitarian economies.
And the complexification is instructive, for the logic has far too often been reduced to a dualism pitting material things against spiritual experiences. Here, instead, we see that there are material things that are more or less “spiritual,” i.e., less or more utilitarian and prosaic than other material things. Material things that make us dream, that inspire and stimulate the mind, in other words, are to be preferred over those that drag us into the gutter or into the stock exchange. Wilde, who wished that he — a human being presumably made of a mixture of spiritual and physical stuff — might live up to his blue and white china, suggests as much. The work of art, albeit in this case made of a refined species of mud, is deemed the loftier substance, perhaps even because it has no needs at all. The aesthetes, had they paid Thoreau a visit in his little cabin (he did not, after all, ever really try living in that railroad box), would probably have found it quite charming. In short, together they ask us to consider what it is we need to feed our souls as well as our bodies. And we may conclude that the things some call luxuries are necessities to others, and vice versa. Each one of us must discover what we most need, and what we are most willing to sacrifice in order to attain and sustain it, while simultaneously sacrificing as little as possible of other things that feed us, in all ways.
I would, then, rather than disparage matter in favor of spirit, or spirit in favor of matter, embrace physicality while celebrating the imagination, and stress that, at best, the most freely non-compromised spirit may play with the structures and arrangements of the physical world, proving the immediate creative potential of the human mind to act upon and alter the “real” and already-established world with its utopian imaginings.
The mind, of course, is part of the physical world, and yet some of its functions seem unexplainable from a purely mechanistic perspective. Seeing, for example, is, strictly speaking, a physical activity; but our perception and understanding of what we see seems to be dependent upon preconceptions and learned ideas about space and extension. Further, when we take in something seen through the eyes and it enters our minds, its physicality is transformed into non-physical ideas and images which we seem to carry with us and possess, without owning or holding the seen things. The beauty of the physical world is material. And the sense organs we use to behold it and process it are physical. But when we move what we see from the world into our minds (both physical), what is seen becomes somehow spiritual, i.e., imaginary, remembered, thought. This is all rather impossibly dizzying, which is one of the reasons we usually do not even bother to think about it. At the same time, it is exciting that mere ideas can induce physical vertigo. And we should think about it, even at the risk of swooning, for our conclusions about the relationship between matter and spirit are deeply relevant to our relationship with meaning-making and, as such, to our sense of our roles and responsibilities in the world.
The brain scientist Terrence Deacon, in his book Incomplete Nature, writes that “consciousness doesn’t appear to have clear physical correlates even though it is quite ambiguously associated with having an awake, functioning brain”(6). He argues eloquently that one of the reasons why consciousness had not been located by scientists is that it is not material, in the sense of “stuff,” but rather that consciousness is a process, a dynamic of possibilities, and, what’s more baffling, a consciousness of reduction, taking away, selecting out. Each cell, each neuron continually fights against the force of entropy and chaos in order to maintain its own integrity, and this “autogenesis,” intent upon maintaining self-creation on the cellular and then, exponentially complexified, on the level of personhood, is a sort of agency, will, desire, self. The mind is moved and inspired by this autogenesis to focus on and select out patterns of matter amid a myriad of possibilities, and in turn the mind chooses and emphasizes what it has seen, loved, feared, noticed, which changes in response to the mind’s new ideas and visions of what is really in the world, and then is, again, seen by new minds and altered, ad infinitum. Remarkably, we find a similar description of creative consciousness in Novalis’s fragments from the 1780’s: “What an inexhaustible amount of materials for new individual combinations is lying about! Anyone who has once guessed this secret — needs nothing more than to decide to renounce endless variety and the mere enjoyment of it and to start somewhere — but this decision is at the expense of the free feeling of an infinite world — and demands restriction to a single appearance of it. Ought we perhaps attribute our earthly existence to a similar decision?” The selecting-out necessary for creation by an individual artist (or by any individual perceiving and creating his world) may be similar to the process by which the human brain creates its self or consciousness. And death, as Deacon suggests, would be a return to the original chaos of everything, an infinite world without choices, without selections, without direction. Living, then, is choice-making, delineation, discrimination, blind spots, even a sort of negation of one arrangement in favor of another, which we can call an affirmation if we choose to.
Deacon argues that events or entities which he calls “ententional phenomena” and “absential features” within consciousness, “make a difference in the world…we are surrounded by the physical consequences of people’s ideas and purposes…ententional causality…assumes the immediate influence of something that is not present… and it seems like ‘magic’”(28-31). Or, more poetically, in the words of Heinrich Heine, “The thought wants action, the Word wants to become flesh…and amazing! Man, like the God of the bible only needs to speak his thought and the world is created. There is light or there is darkness, the waters separate from solid land, or wild beasts appear. The world is the signature of the Word. Note this, you proud men of action. You are nothing but the unconscious extensions of the men of thought, who often, in modest silence, have precisely predetermined all of your doings” (On the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany).
The objects of the physical world have been rendered as signatures of spirit, as very important symbols, metaphors, and dream-images of some other realm transcendentalists from Plato to Emerson have thought of as “the really real.” This prejudice against matter qua matter has often explained the physical world away as a shallow and airy phantom of a moment’s deluded perception: we ought, so runs the argument, therefore, set our eye and heart on what remains and strive not to be distracted and seduced by the pleasures and desires of this prison house, these clayey lodgings, the body. But the spirit, along with will, desire, agency, choice, love, ethics, has been banished entirely by others for almost completely opposite reasons. These would explain the world as fundamentally lacking in meaning or purpose and our human bodies and their urges as the mere accidental detritus of mechanistic necessities such as the survival of the species. Deacon quotes Richard Dawkins as representative of this view: “no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference” and then notes that autonomized explanations of the world dispose of the idea of self altogether: “Your body is a chemical machine” and feelings and thoughts are unreal. There is possibly “no one home.” This materialistic worldview paradoxically denigrates the physical just as much as the former. It divests matter — and with it human life, love, suffering, and the experience of beauty — of any trace of meaning.
Responding to a worldview which limits the material world to a spiritless hull, hedonism, an embrace of pleasure for its own sake, is to my mind clearly a better response than the wearing of hair shirts and other excoriations and deprivations of the flesh. For if nothing matters and there is no purpose besides the constant preservation of the species, we may as well enjoy ourselves while here best we can — if we can, indeed, really enjoy meaningless pleasure for long. But indifference and nihilism is more often the consequence of such a perspective, resulting in an impoverished and wasted life. The beauty of the physical world with all its pleasures can really mean very little without a meaning-making and choosing mind to process the thrills and delights of colors, caresses, sounds, tastes, repeating patterns and designs. We tend then, at best, to take in all the phenomena and translate it, add it up to a summary conclusion about the value or purpose of life; in fact, we cannot help but do so.
Science has still not been able to figure out why, if there appears to be no necessary reason for humans to make poems and develop ethics, we still do; thus leaving those who would insist on a mechanistic explanation really unable to fully explain themselves. This latter view tends to explain things like poetry, tender feelings, ethical scruples, or the history of architecture as nothing more than elaborated, evolved mating rituals. Perhaps Deacon’s theory of autogenesis brings us closer to a more acceptable understanding of agency, will, self-generation and selfhood as exponentially complex versions of simple biological processes; the alternative explanation for consciousness, which usually assumes some sort of a priori reason or imbedded purpose for all of this, founders on many fronts, but most practically upon the impossibility of absolute justification of particular assessments of good, bad, beautiful, or true, since an action thought to be the highest form of tribute in one culture may be the basest insult in another. In other words, physical actions and objects are, of course, given meanings by individuals and societies (along with names and associations), which are often not inherently necessary or consistently characteristic. This seems to suggest that anything can be anything and mean anything and the only possible recourse we have for assessment is utility and physical pleasure. But even those criteria are hopelessly variable, since something may be useful to one person in one situation and an annoying obstacle to and in another; and, of course, one man’s pain is another’s pleasure. Which leaves us where?
In simplistic terms, there are those who want to believe that there is meaning and something like a reason or purpose for being here and those who prefer to believe the opposite — and then there is another sort altogether (of which I count myself): this sort of person believes that while there are certain basic natural facts in the universe (gravity, for example), the individual and group mind necessarily do and must and should impart meaning and purpose to what might essentially be meaningless phenomena. If, as seems likely, there is no reason why we are here, it behooves us to create our own reasons, our own desires and goals and necessities, albeit always with a consciousness of our powers to change these as we ourselves, or as the circumstances, change. We are meaning-making and meaning-seeking animals, and this trait (be it biological, evolutionarily useful, or just a random accident) seems to be an unexplainable fact. We cannot help but ascribe meaning and purpose to phenomena, to events, to objects. And while people have come to call this meaning-making a form of mysticism or social construction and impugn it as a conscious and malignant endeavor to hoist the values of the people in power upon others less fortunate, this is itself a social construction — a narrow narrative of the really complicated and chaotic development of mores and beliefs. Such a narrative willfully neglects the possibility and probability of any individual being waking up to a world interpreted by his or her own vision and coloring it in such an irresistible fashion so as to reawaken the whole rest of humanity to see what she sees. Anyone can, and must change the world at every moment. We are doing it now, for better or for worse.
Which is, of course, what art is and does, and why it is so important. The artist takes the shared raw material of the world, its realities and its appearances, its tendency to delude and its momentary revelations of terrible and beautiful truths, and shapes these infinite elements into something new and something necessarily subjective, something that is at once untrue and true. The artist teaches us, at best, that we too can and must do the same.
And while philosophers have often strained to separate the two realms of matter and meaning, some insisting on the “true” reality of one over the other, I am interested not in further polarizing body and mind, matter and idea, reality and art, but, rather, in exploring the ways in which they have occupied different positions in our ethical and aesthetic consciousness depending upon the context. I am concerned that our conceptions of their separateness or synthesis are at the basis of an often unexamined conduct of life, are embedded in our language, resulting in the pervasive conflicting beliefs that on the one hand there is something the matter with matter and on the other that materiality is the only thing that can bring us happiness. Of course, this investigation already presupposes that the way we arrange matter in our minds determines what we see, seemingly privileging mind over matter; but minds — human brains — are matter too, and the objects and elements that the brain arranges are also mostly (if not entirely) from the physical world, as we imagine combinations of things and places and people we have already seen with our eyes or felt or experienced with our bodies. But we also may be capable of conceiving of fresh abstractions based not on the external world, but on some interior structures (called at one time innate ideas; now, perhaps more accurately termed subjective constructions). We see, apparently, only what we believe is possible, and this requires a certain creative observer whose provenance and process may or may not be traceable by modern science. Whether or not there is anything new under the sun may come down to the brain’s ability to conceive of something never before imagined, something that is not just a combination of perceived, seen, felt elements. And if this is possible, we can look for it in the realm of art, a process of creation which, as my friend Alex Gaydos once pointed out to me, is not strictly in service to matter, or to the needs of the moment, but which enables us to transcend whatever temporal reality we are in, which enables us to be somewhere, someone, somehow else. Art — usually a physical object or sensuous experience created out of images or sounds and their arrangements — is inspired at least in part by the realm of matter, even if only as a rejection or deviation from natural laws (consider a sculpture that seems to hang suspended on air), and is simultaneously something that is born of spirit, i.e., feeling and mind, into the physical world. Art, then, is never disengaged from reality or the concerns of social life, but is always inherently and radically participating in guiding and challenging us to see and thus to live in new ways.
This aesthetic experience is inherently related to ethical possibility, as the choices we make to see this and not that, to narrate differing causes and effects for shared experiences, to judge an event, a person, an action, or a society’s mores from radically deviating perspectives seem to suggest that the mind has more say in the matter than a monopoly of mere matter allows. George Berkeley, who famously questioned whether matter existed at all outside of our senses, outside of our mind, notes that the spirit, as agent, is able to excite “ideas in my mind at pleasure and vary and shift the scenes as often as I think fit. It is no more than willing, and straightaway this or that idea arises in my fancy: and by the same power it is obliterated, and makes way for another. This making and unmaking of ideas doth very properly denominate the mind active” (63). But a skepticism about the nature of physical reality, no matter how empowering it is to mind, need not devolve into a skepticism about the very existence of the physical. Yet, Berkeley is quite sound in suggesting that we have no way of ever testing whether reality does exist outside of our senses, because our senses remain our only mode of testing. Still, if we accept that there is a reality outside of ourselves and concede that this reality is not absolutely solid, nor completed, this realization should encourage a more engaged process of existential choice-making, not an attitude of carelessness, whether hedonistic or indifferent.
That the physical world and our constructs of time, space, and necessity may be less certain than they sometimes appear to be, that matter is permeable, both waves and particles, and subject to constant change, does not mean that what we do and how we think is irrelevant, but rather the contrary, since our actions and thoughts are largely responsible for the world we continue to inhabit. Whenever we think we are stuck or that the “real” world has us in a corner, we may experience the powerful force of spirit — this time in the form of will or a consciousness of agency — as possible rescue operations, alternatives, or even simply new ways to experience the perceived bad situation occur to our searching minds. Even the very idea of a God, for which there is no possible natural precedent except perhaps childbirth, is evidence, not of its truth, but of the mind’s ability to imagine something that may not exist. If, in other words, we can imagine and invent something for which there is no a priori necessity or precedent, and arrange our lives and choices around this figment, then mind must play a substantial role in the construction and experience of reality. This is all the more reason to be as aware as possible of our role in creating realities and to see to it that, while we should hold fast to our ideals and priorities, we do not allow ourselves as individuals or societies to petrify into any one particular figment or phantom arrangement as if it were absolutely necessarily one way or another. Probably many of you have often been told that you were being “unrealistic” as to your expectations or hopes for a better world. The only possible answer to such a taunt is to change the very reality which has your interlocutor in its deadly grip.
Medieval theologians often explained the physical world as “God’s Book,” within which we, who grasp abstractions only with difficulty, might better read the ineffable messages of the Divine. While many people today, conversely, assume that symbols are stand-ins for real things, that they “mean” or “equal” something specific and tangible, we do well to reverse this, at least for a moment, to regard and experience the supposedly real things as symbols, or rather heralds of something even more real, something lasting and unmeasurable, as hieroglyphs approaching some silent explanation of what it means to be alive. Starting from the physical, we may proceed to the imaginary, the conceptual, the as-of-yet unconceived. Thus we can see that reading the “meanings” of the physical world need not mean either a disregard for physical reality or a rigid reading of matter. One important difference between the medieval Christian symbol system and ours was well explained by Emerson in his essay, “The Poet,” when he noted that the mystic (he meant in this context the dogmatic mystic) nails every symbol to one meaning, whereas the poet sees multiple meanings in every “sensuous fact.” While a medieval theologian would usually read the decay of the body as a simple forewarning against attachment to the flesh, we need not interpret it as an admonishment to not enjoy what is fleeting. Although the very fleetingness of physical joys, their tendency to alter, fade, and disappear altogether may be precisely that which we call an object lesson, the story’s moral need not be that we should not care for objects at all or that we should denigrate the sensual world. For physical things — skin, colors, tree bark, bread, chocolate, kisses, gold coins, paper money, shoe buckles, filigree, crenellations, gilded books, ponies, eyelashes and fingertips, marbleized frontispieces, photographs, hips and napes of necks, smells and sounds and textures — all simultaneously partake in the spiritual and the physical, are all miraculously self-generating evidence of a teeming life force at play, a universe in love with its own creative energy, with human hands and minds and eyes in its willing service, evidence of a force — we may call it love or simply natural desire — of perpetual making and rejoicing in that making.
I lose things, but not really, never really having them in the first place, and am able, in so far as I may recall or imagine them, to recover them again. And then, just as much as I lose things, I find things that have been lost by others, seeing things that others overlook, picking them out, pointing them out, pocketing them for later. Memory, too, is a loser and a finder, a shuffler, a parser, a re-arranger. Deliberately or not, we slip back and forth between physical things and the memories of places and events and persons, real or remembered, that the mementoes recall. A Proustian paving stone or that famous madeleine given to me by reading a book belong to my collection as much as any weighty bronze sculpture I hold in my hand. But only the choicest pieces may be displayed in the more public cabinet of curiosities which constitutes the conscious mind, while secret drawers are crammed with forgotten, repressed, or tragically neglected keepsakes, broken amulets, stopped pocket watches, and fragments of lost letters, sentences now illegible after that vial of holy water brought back from the Ganges or from Glastonbury broke and spilled, making the ink bleed. I tend to overflow, squander, shuffle, scramble, and hope that when the time comes whatever it is will fall into my hands. And sometimes I am surprised by what can only be a miracle: that this or that tiny object, a key, a slim volume, a scrap of paper on which I had written a word or a number, a quotation lost in a thousand page book, suddenly appears before me, and even when it is the last minute and I need to be running out the door and absolutely need to have found it. But what has been lost: moments, names, melodies, facts, details, sensations, intricately wrought hat pins, pressed flowers, locks of hair, lovers’ promises, things and events we swore at the time we would hold on to forever, is inconceivable and criminal. People even sometimes burn letters or leave family photo albums out in the rain. But we would rather not think on that.
Pippi Longstocking was a notorious finder, as is my friend Stephen Callahan; they called him “finder boy” in his youth and he was always called upon to look for something someone had mislaid. This is suspicious, now that I think of it; maybe he was actually a thief, like that seeker after truth Nietzsche writes about, who hides something behind a bush and seems surprised to find it precisely there where he once hid it! But any artist is this sort of a magician, an artist of the sleight of hand, swiping what others do not appreciate and setting it so that it becomes suddenly desirable, arranging it so that its original owner comes to miss it. Artists are people who endeavor to notice what was always there in potentialis, who are able to make the ordinary suddenly important, to see it new, to make others wish that they had found whatever it was first. And, of course, all philosophical systems and worldviews are a particular kind of arrangement by individual vision, a setting of the raw material of the actual world (what is) into an utopian pattern or design (what could be), rather than resting in a merely habitual rut of received ideas. Really, the arrangements we make may as well be utopian, elegant, joyous, sacred, ecstatic, experimental, serious funhouse mirrors and creative extensions of pre-existing “reality,” rather than a slavish mimesis to some status quo. Let us look at “reality” as a diamond in the rough, raw material, continually reset by ourselves, as creative royal jewelers, in infinitely fantastical tiaras which we can try on inside and outside of our heads to help us see and act and experience in new ways. If existence precedes essence, as the existentialists have it, then we can and must choose what we are and what the world is and means, how we act, what we value and reject, even if our choices are sometimes limited by a few natural laws and unavoidable circumstances. It shouldn’t be a surprise, after all, that finder boy grew up to be an aesthetic utopian who collects and arranges objects with an attention as devoted as that he renders to the design and conception of his ideal Nowhere, striving always to manifest it in the physical world.
Spirit may be understood as the arranger and the meaning-maker, while matter provides the colors and textures and shapes with which it plays. Why some people — even Emerson — conclude that therefore matter is the vulgar part of this union and spirit, i.e., form, the higher part of art, can probably be traced to our inherited prejudice against anything that doesn’t last, but it is as difficult to imagine a sculpture without marble or clay as it is to imagine experiencing the world without a body. A clay model of a body, however, a medieval Golem for example, is a rather pathetic thing without the in-spiration of ru’ah (Hebrew: breath; holy spirit) to make it come alive.
Pippi Longstocking knew what was important: the freedom to imagine, adventure, and roam unhindered by obstacles, whether physical or mental. She was, in fact, unconstrainable; she couldn’t be socialized; didn’t like school; she knew her own strength; she threw gold pieces around with a carelessness unmatched except by the denizens of Moore’s Utopia, where precious stones were to be found lining the gutters. Speaking of marvelous finders, I shouldn’t neglect to mention Phineas Sonin, our local junk man with his shining eyes and multi-colored rickshaws, who is always, always, finding and re-dispersing the detritus of civilization, as if to remind us that all our possessions are like the ribbons and shreds picked up by birds, always able to be transformed into new shapes and new psychic dwellings for fledgling dreamers. He reminds us that nothing is ever useless, even if it has outworn its original purpose. Also not to be forgotten is our wild, mad friend, Robin Simon — may she ramble somewhere safely, despite her neglect of gravity, time, space, and other natural laws —, whose gifts of miraculous treasures discovered in the streets unearth themselves even today from under piles of boxes or out of drawers in my room, and hurl themselves onto the floor moments before a letter from her — the first one in years — appears in my mailbox, as if the objects were fore-echoes of the words on their way. A little Chinese box with lacquered scenes from fairy tales, a porcelain mask, and an embroidered sash, a pair of velvet dragon knickers, a miniature tea cup with a world inside. Telekinesis? Perhaps; it probably is easier to make physical objects move if one doesn’t believe in their actual weight. She was fluid with possessions, as rings she had picked up off our bureaus would just as innocently be slipped onto the fingers of seeming strangers or new friends, or tiny baubles pocketed in silence be left in tree nooks or upon the stairwell of a passing dandy wearing a pretty cape. How, she seemed to say, can any one thing belong to any one person? She rendered the objects their own agency, as if they were animated by attractions and fascinations to find their way into the hands of those who deserved them.
Some people claim that their dead friends and family, their ancestors, send them things as messages from the other worlds when they are wandering in rummage sales or antique shops: a tea pot, a letter opener, a bearskin cape with a silver, leaf-shaped clasp. And there are, indeed, times when an object seems to give us inordinately intense pleasure, either because it seems connected to a person or an idea, or because of its peculiar shape, weight, color, or smell, times when an object seems to be just precisely the thing to fill us with happiness, a sense of meaning, purpose, connection. In such a case, the true bohemian knows that no amount of filthy lucre is too much to spend or expend on the item, and, in fact, the squandering of mere money for something like that is part of the pleasure of the exchange. I enjoy spending money — not just the getting of the thing, but the actual act of giving the bundle of bills away. Some people feel pain when they pay; I feel a sensual pleasure, a sense of freedom and luxury. And it is not because I have unlimited supply — I live at present well below the poverty line —; nor because I have overlooked the fact that time is money; it is certainly not because I do not know what the cost of a thing is in Thoreau’s priceless definition, i.e., “the amount of what I call life that is expended for it now or in the long run.” It may be, rather, that I am not worried about having the money later, because I know I can live on very little, quite happily, quite richly.
Of course, we all know about the common folly of trying to fill spiritual emptiness with material riches, but, somehow, today’s cultural impoverishment has something to do with a misunderstanding of the spirit inhering in certain kinds of matter, in art, in artifacts, in certain kinds of physicality. In fact, a look at the history of our cultural relationship with matter and spirit reveals that inhering spirit in matter has been one of the greatest taboos, called by the name of idolatry. Taboo, as is well known, has a way of creating more perverse attachments, and the fetishism of objects as well as of human bodies in the form of consumerism and pornography may be a result of this insistence on the separation of spirit and matter. The widespread impoverishment in the face of so much material debauchery and excess impels us to discover a more meaningful connection between matter and spirit, body and mind, a connection that has largely gone missing among the sometimes extreme polar categorizations of ideal and real, physical and transcendental, carnal and spiritual. I want to look more closely at our unexamined assumptions, our cultural prejudices, and the way in which we have become at once unabashedly materialistic and piously, moralistically anti-aesthetic. It has turned out to be a worse bargain than was once calculated, for we have not only lost our souls, but have gained no compensatory worlds in return.
Everyone speaks about the problem of Americans being over-glutted with a base sensuality, but really, as is often the case with over-indulgence, we have become grossly insensible to the finer sensations. We cannot listen amid the incessant noise, we cannot see amid the rushing images, we cannot touch because we have become calloused all over. We are obese — but at the same time, we starve ourselves; our garages are filled to the brim with expendable and already broken junk; our landfills are mountains of eternal toxic shame; but few people seem to notice that this over-consumption is related to a numbness, a blind-deaf-and-dumbness to the faint stirrings and whisperings of the spirit that once could be traced in the lineaments of the physical world, in art and in nature, a numbness whose source is a tragic misunderstanding about how little one has to actually pay in order to be as wealthy as Emerson’s poet.
When people speak about the loss of spirit, they tend to suggest we cure the malady with a turn inward, a turn away from the physical world which implicitly negates the complex relationship obtaining between matter and spirit, between sensory and transcendental realms. This cure comes in many forms: minimalism; piety; asceticism; attacks on beauty and on the aesthetic components of art, music, social experience; an advocacy of pure conceptualism; a disregard of surroundings and environments; an insidious argument for technological consumerism; a leave-no-trace attitude to existence, whereby one is enjoined that the best thing a human could do, after not existing, would be to have as little impact as possible. While the last is a natural and, to some extent, admirable response to the abuse of natural resources and a very real environmental crisis, it has been adopted as a general platform for existence, suggesting that less is always more, and that there is nothing, literally nothing, that a person can contribute to the cultural or material richness of the world. The traces of natural affirmative human impressions and expressions are inadvertently erased in the rush to minimize the “carbon footprint,” but, alas, environmental damage is still spreading more quickly than can be counteracted by all the good will in the world, while culture and participatory engagement are disappearing faster than the ozone layer. A return to spirit and culture really requires very little in the way of natural resources since one can walk, bicycle, read, talk to a person who is beside one, experience nature, listen to what little silence there is left, without using fossil fuels and without creating toxic waste, without wasting any electricity at all; but governments and individuals choose instead to spend millions of dollars and use up more and more resources looking for some complicated technological means to continue to live unsustainably amid a myriad of distractions and annoyances, even though most of us agree that our gadgets, our jobs, our highways, our machines do not actually make us happier or better people. And, as we recklessly deplete our natural resources, we are literally running out of the vital matter to make more matter; and the cost, in terms of the horrific physical and anti-aesthetic desecration of the land as well as the ethical and spiritual degradation that comes with selfish greed and a neglect of human and natural consequences, is devastating even now.
The spread of technology, with its concomitant defense of the virtual, has contributed greatly to an apparent devaluing of the physical; yet, this “revolution” has not translated into a spiritualization of existence or a real reduction of tedious, meaningless work for harried humanity. Instead, the spiritual has been eradicated along with the physical connection. The technological devolution seems to be little more than a ruse for selling the newest device or gadget, without which the supposedly timeless-spaceless modern being feels unable to function. He has given up his memory, his ability to synthesize and understand ideas, his freedom, as well as any simple access to human or neighborly help, knowledge, or warmth. This price is too high to pay for a dubious return in the form of a promise of immediate access to data and information, the ability to buy things without leaving one’s home or office (minus the sensual thrill of handling dollars and seeing, smelling, touching the world). He has gained the ability to work and be reached at all times on any mountain top, in the middle of any conversation or experience, and the constant anticipation of some small chance of a random surprise salvation from what really can only honestly be characterized as an unbearable and shallow existence — an existence so unsatisfactory that one hopes constantly that it will be interrupted by something better. The allegedly virtual is fatally bound to a merely materialistic culture lacking in spiritual foundation. It costs much more than it returns, as its incessant buzzing, roaring, and ringing drown out any possibility of enjoying the “free time” theoretically to be gained by the convenience of technology. As it turns out, keeping the infrastructure or virtual reality “on” twenty-four hours a day requires much more wasted energy than we like to think, thus flagrantly obviating any supposed return in environmental protection. A knapsack filled with free books checked out of the public library (a spiritual institution which is not by accident suffering an immense financial crisis while multinational information technology companies are thriving) is a much better bit of baggage to take to that desert island — or into the post-industrial future — than the newest oil-based and electricity-dependent plastic monstrosity; and one gets physical exercise while carrying it, not to mention the mental exercise, the experience of synthesizing organic, complex knowledge, the real experience of reading, digesting, reflecting in silence on whole books instead of downloading snippets and summaries, or dilutions of data and co-opted cultural capital, into a fact-crammed brain. There is an immense gulf between information and knowledge, and the way we as a culture seem to have forgotten this may have something to do with the commodification of even spiritual wealth into cultural capital, something to be utilized, manipulated, transferred, bought, and sold for some mercenary purpose. Education — one that engages in ethical and aesthetic reflection and questioning, fruitful confusion and uncertainty, dialogue, synthesis, and unaccountable experience — cannot be bought and sold across cyberspace or implanted via a chip in the brain. Speed reading is not reading. The “medium is the message,” and a book should be heavy, if only to weigh the reader, slow the reader down.
Emerson spoke of every “sensual fact,” as a material manifestation within the world, as a symbol for a complex assortment of ideas, not to be reduced to one mathematically or dogmatically predetermined solution or answer. And this interplay between the physical as symbol and its spiritual extension regenerates itself, infinitely, at no material, environmental, or ethical cost. Reflection, and its resulting provisional stations of synthesis, is one of the most essential processes for the development of new ideas, fresh insights, original arrangements; and it is something our society has almost entirely neglected, abandoned, forgotten. We can see the results of this neglect around us already, but only if we stop for a moment and reflect. What I suspect is that an important cause and effect of this neglect is a confusion about matter and its relationship to spirit, and while this or other solutions to our presently unsustainable predicament might occur to any of us were we to sit a moment with the rare discomfort that rushes in if we recuse ourselves temporarily from the rush and rage — the hope and hype — of commodities, data, and progress, we rarely dare to release our hold (although we are really the ones being held) on whatever it is we feel we must do in order not to fall out of step, in order not to lose our jobs, homes, social standing, security. We are so frightened of losing our grip that we do not risk the smallest danger (darkness, loneliness, confusion) to change our lives. We are so busy acquiring things we think we need, and doing things we think we need to do, that we do not even take the time to consider whether we really want the situation or success after which we are striving; nor do we have the leisure or quiet to enjoy or admire all that already belongs to us by right. “Things are in the saddle,” warned Emerson, back when it had not gotten nearly so bad as it is today, “and ride mankind.” But the Poet, he also reminded us, is “Sky-lord, Land-lord, Sea-lord,” for everything she sees or even imagines is an enduring possession. But we cannot possess it if we do not have the leisure or senses to enjoy it. There is — in effect — nothing which we can really lose, except perhaps the flexibility and fertility of our minds.
What then is the most fruitful relationship between physical entities and their associated ideas and spirit? Leaving language out of the equation altogether, we may consider that any individual specific object, mountain, or building is in contact with the idea or even “Ideal Form” of that object, an idea or ideal of mountain, of building. We might even assume, as many have over the course of the history of ideas, that anyone who is overly attached to a particular temporal physicality is somehow less spiritual, and here we have a philosophy and theology of spirit seemingly born in the service of sparing us the pain of loss and death ahead of time. Non-attachment might appear to be a wise method in the sublunar regions, where all is fleeting and time triumphs — but it rather seems like a ruse, or a case of special pleading, considering we do have bodies, and appetites, and that we do suffer the pain of loss and lack, despite all attempts to assuage it. We also, it must not be forgotten, experience pleasure, and it seems an act of bad faith to accept the one and reject the other. Though it hardly seems like an admirable achievement, some spiritual practitioners may manage to neither suffer nor enjoy anything at all. Rather, I suppose that the individual experience of losing an actual specific physical thing or person is a meaningful object lesson in the reality of death — it may lead us to enjoy life all the more, to pay more attention, to concentrate on our pleasures and on all sensations, even seemingly unpleasant ones, for we will not have the luxury of experiencing them forever. We should pay attention to the fate of matter, to fading, to physical decay and the processes of natural fermentation and regeneration. We should pay more attention.
Pain, delight, pleasure, beauty all come, in any case, in both spiritual and physical forms, usually in fact, in a mixture of both. We cannot, or rather should not, try to minimize or limit our experience out of a moralistic or even practical stoic defensiveness. Some bit of pain or trouble may be salutary, or even stimulating; some types of burdens are worth carrying, if only to build physical and spiritual muscles, if only to experience the delicious relief of laying them down and doing absolutely nothing afterward or in between. If I seem to be stressing the didactive benefit of the physical, let me add that matter is also to be enjoyed for its sensual properties as well, and maybe even in tandem with the sensations of its stings and arrows, as contrast at least. Renoir asked, “Why should beauty be suspect?” And, while we have some ideas as to why, we would do well to consider that pleasure and delight make up at least one part of what real life consists and we do no one damage by experiencing or dwelling on beauty if its creation does not incur inordinate residual spiritual or physical ugliness (as, admittedly, some seemingly pretty things may). While we might even entertain the idea that property is to some extent and in some cases a form of theft, let us not forget that we need not own something to enjoy it, and that the bounty and loot once pillaged from ancient civilizations — the victims of colonialist ravagement — serves to enrich millions of people every day in public museums, who come to possess the beautiful forms, materials, and historic and cultural significance by merely looking. While such booty has often been egregiously ill-gotten, it is not matter’s fault that people have abused each other to possess it in the past — indeed, we may hear the cries of the massacred people as well as the songs they sang while making the objects if we hold them close to our ears. Today we may (though we too often do not) choose more consciously to make and to attain things without such high human, environmental, and cultural costs — thereby hopefully merging spirit more meaningfully with matter. It is no simple task, however, to calculate how much pleasure and spiritual profit can be gained with the least amount of pain and inhumanity, especially if we admit that by merely breathing we kill organisms and by walking we cannot avoid stepping on the smallest of creatures.
While Thoreau is most famously quoted as saying, “Simplify, simplify, simplify,” I read him a bit more closely and find that he is not absolutely vilifying matter — in fact, he learns all about his “higher laws” by pushing up against the bounds of the physical and through a practically hyper-aesthetic attention to physical details and forms. He is asking only that we seriously consider matter’s relationship to spirit, and entreating us to refrain from sacrificing spirit — in the form of values, artistic and ethical freedom, our integrity, the sanctity of nature, and the realm of transcendental imagination — to an exterior covering which has been reduced to a simulacrum only of meaningful humanity. It is not the exterior that is evil, but an exterior out of touch with its interior. He suggests we be worthy of our clothes, our castles, our pomp, and be as noble on the inside as on the outside. Beautiful things should, thus, be made in beautiful ways, in ways that are not in themselves ugly and in ways that do not cover up a multitude of aesthetic, ethical, or environmental crimes. But we must not get too fastidious about the messiness of making, living, experimenting, for we do not always even know which seemingly good act engenders unseen negative consequences or which seemingly bad or disengaged one might do worlds of good.
Today’s Americans may, indeed, be as vulgar as their exteriors portend; but this is a problem, not a noble unpretentiousness about which to crow. Rather, let us be pretentious first if it is a means to growing into or living up to a premature external glory. Thoreau, in my view, is quite a bit closer to the dandies and bohemians of Europe than the Puritan utilitarians of Massachusetts. The transcendentalists and the aesthetes together raise the imagination above mammon and rail against those who, as Wilde mocked, know the “price of everything and the value of nothing.” The dandies and the naturalists have more in common than at first meets the eye, despite Wilde’s horrified exclamation: “Enjoy Nature?!”
As Baudelaire notes, in his excursus on the dandy in “The Painter of Modern Life,” the child and the savage, and by association the aesthete and the transcendentalist, share an “adoration of what is brilliant — many-colored feathers, iridescent fabrics, the incomparable majesty of artificial forms — the baby and the savage bear witness to their disgust of the real, and thus give proof, without knowing it, of the immateriality of the soul!” And in a letter from 1894, Proust writes, echoing Jesus’s famous dictum about the kingdom of heaven: “You have happiness within you: that is the safest, if not the only, way of having it. In any case, whatever may be the happiness you dream of (to dream of it is to already have it in the most ideal sense of the word, which as a good idealist I believe to be the only true one) I am sure it is a happiness of the very best quality.” A classic bohemian from Mürger’s Vie de Bohême is indeed a transcendentalist of sorts when, instead of heavy and expensive furniture he moves from garret to garret with a folding screen upon which his beautiful chairs, tables, divans, and bed are painted. In a more neo-Platonic than a strictly Platonic sense — where a “disgust of the real” is not a denigration of art, but of the status quo — this painted screen is a manifestation of the idea of furniture, a sort of cosmic joke on society’s expectations, freeing the artist from what Thoreau called “shriveling one’s self up into a nutshell of civility,” freeing him from ignoble pleasing, flattering, lying, cosseting, selling or compromising himself to the non-ideals of the marketplace in exchange for a couple of chairs that are usually not even as beautiful as the ones a poor bohemian might invent. Better to sit on the floor than on a utilitarian chair purchased with one’s dreams and at the expense of one’s values. But the higher truth is that we must have beautiful chairs and beautiful dreams, or rather, we must see to it that our dreams come true, furnishing even the physical world with our spiritual fancies.
Genese Grill is an artist, translator, writer, and cultural conspirator living in Burlington, Vermont. She is the author of The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s ‘The Man without Qualities’ (Camden House, 2012) and the translator of a collection of Robert Musil’s short prose, Thought Flights (Contra Mundum, 2015). She is currently working on completing a collection of essays exploring the tension between spirit and matter in contemporary culture and a room-sized, illuminated, accordion book inscribed with one of the essays from the collection, along with many other fanatical projects. You can find Genese online at genesegrill.blogspot.com.