Friday, 24 July 2009

that Foolishness, that lightness (also: instead of ars poetica)

Once again, I will go against the routine of the Floating Bridge: today's post will be about photography, among other things. And to make it even worse, it will be, up to a certain degree, self-referential. I would like to let you know how the Beautiful Foolishness of Things, my current project with Michael Tweed, is going.

Simple things (joy is always simple): that I am grateful and would like to thank all those who follow it, who have written to me about the Foolishness and encouraged us to continue.

Also, that I am very happy with the gentle way of its 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 meet through tenderness at one 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.

and if she needed to withdraw,
which wasn’t often,

it was never away from

but only between.

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 can even imagine the kanjis for it: 写真和歌. 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: 芸道、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'.

the infinity within,
it too would gently
reveal itself.

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' (身心脱落), 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 (
有時, 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.

time was simply
the expansion of her being

in which all things

were revelation.

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 exact opposite of the Bridge: the lightness. 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."

with the tiniest,
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.


  1. The original face has no birth and death
    Spring is in plum blossoms and enters into a photograph

    (a slight variation on the lines by Dogen's teacher Ju-ching)

  2. this is an excellent introduction to many things japanese that i didn't know( among other things). i think you can write an excellent essay without being overbearing or giving the impression of being too rhetorical.

    duets like you and the other blog you mention can work if there is both difference and affinity. too much of both may hinder artistic flow. i think your efforts are generally good though i cannot quote any specific examples from your two blogs at present.

    your new posts complements your pictures quite well. but i must read about the waka concept more before i say anything specific. btw, the quote of bersani in your previous comment is from which book?

  3. That white shell will haunt black eternity.

  4. What a beautiful interplay between words and images, in the series you are creating. And everything you write here about your motivations and the inspiration in Japanese aesthetics is fascinating - I am going to have to print it out to absorb it properly.

  5. and yes, a secret woman for the quote!

  6. You have me at a disadvantage on the subject of Japanese poetry. I do not feel qualified to comment on it directly, and so, I elect to follow a more circuitous route.

    Your project with Michael is postmodern in the sense that it embraces multiple view points. There are words expressing thought, and images expressing, in apposition, as in, consecutive nouns or noun phrases referring to the same person or thing, a linguistic construct. And what are there rules for such an endeavor? Certainty, there is no grand narrative. Is this concomitant expression all, or nothing? Silence, all was accomplished.

    The photo, in the appositive case, stands in for the poem. It acts as mirror, but not necessarily of polished glass. There is a reflection but no diegesis. The photo is extra-diegetic to the poem in the sense that an external soundtrack on a film is outside of the film's diegesis.

    On the subject of the photograph in extenso, Barthes found a critical fulcrum in his mother's death (Camera Lucida) and the photograph stood in the long shadow of the past.

    Is the photograph of a leaf emblematic of the past? Is this the dualistic mind at work. The photograph of the leaf is the past. But it is also, simultaneously, the present and the future. Of course, in the case of Barthes, it is me and my mother. Me and my mother - and the world. The Buddhist view is more that a leaf existed in the past, leaves exist in the present and leaves will exist in the future.

    A westerner enters a movie theater and demands that the projectionist start running the film. A Buddhist enters the movie theater and ask that the film be run at one frame per second, thus shattering the illusion of reality. Each frame comes as it is and denies the film an essence. Likewise, in non-dualistic fashion, there is no inner essence to "me". It is the deconstruction of memory.

    Roxana, you continually broaden our horizons.

  7. Thank you Roxana for this vision, deep like a flowing river, dense like the ice of glaciers, luminous like the brilliant blue of dense ice, yet warm with the sharing of experience and knowledge... if you continue in this vein there is going to be a run on books containing Japanese poetry...

    I have always felt intuitively that photography was a totally magical process, but never tried to intellectualize that feeling. I sense the ideas you have so lovingly expressed here could start me down the way toward a more zen-like approach to the act of photographing... must re-read the book on zen archery that is around here somewhere...

  8. A truly stunning post.

    I haven't been to the other yet, and I don't know why really, but yes, led and followed, I will go there now.

    Thank you, for all you give.

  9. before graduating to the lightness-stage, - am still being enthralled by this ars poetica.
    Have been nodding silently all the time while reading, muffling some delighted aha's ...
    yes!, "photography as a form of contemplation" , yes! "transcending cognitive activity" , yes! the link with the intuitions & the brevity of poetry...

    But will now go and enjoy yet again that Beautiful Foolishness of Things ; silencing for a little while the analytical mind, for fear it would obscure both beauty and meaning

    (but that wayward analytical mind surely will be back again to duly analyse this fascinating post :-) )

    PS so love the shell-photo

  10. Michael:

    In the water,
    A traveler's reflection -
    As I float.

    (a slight variation on the wandering Zen monk Santoka's haiku)

    thus the wondering Bridge expresses her gratitude to the one who comes by :-)

  11. Kubla, thank you so much. i feel more than encouraged by your kind words, since i have never written an essay in English before and i have struggled a bit with the language.

    i totally agree with you that both difference and affinity need to be there. i think they are there, if you take a look at Michael's project 'Revolutions' (
    you will see that his own gaze and manner of taking pictures are very different than mine. but how this influences the Foolishness is a very complicated question i haven't pondered yet.

    Bersani's quote is from his 'Freudian Body. Psychoanalysis and Art' - i have only read fragments myself and am trying to find the whole book.

  12. merc - there is something about that shell haunting me ever since i took the picture, even if i cannot say what. thank you.
    (your poems have often a Japanese feeling about them as well, we have talked about this before)

  13. ah Neil, thank you, you have no idea what this means to me - i have never expected that people would be interested and also that they would take the time to read such a long post... i am truly grateful.

  14. my dear, dear Prospero - in the light of my previous answer - what an unexpected surprise and joy: people not only taking their time to read, but also to write such long and insightful and challenging comments, the Bridge is blessed to have such guests and friends :-)

    the questions you ask about combinations between words and images (i know they don't expect any answers, and there are hardly answers here) - i have asked them too, ever since i have started this blog (which was supposed to be totally devoid of words at first) - and again when beginning the project with Michael. if you are interested, you can have a look at this first post about the collaboration and the interesting dialogue it has sparkled:

    i know you would agree with me, sometimes it is good to let go of any threads and just wander through the labyrinth, amazed by every path which opens in front... even if it is the same you took yesterday, it is not actually the same and one is the same and different as well.

  15. you are welcome, dear S., i am glad you found something here again...

  16. "before graduating to the lightness-stage", ffflaneur :-)))

    (before answering, i have to try adjusting the resonating pitch of my laugh so as to keep the Bridge staying afloat :-)

    but what can i answer, except that i am happy that both your intuitive and analytical mind (used here in the sense the Japanese use 'kokoro', mind and soul together) have found something of interest in my - indeed very rare - 'theoretical' rantings :-)

  17. thank you for visiting, Bhavesh, i am glad you found something you like :-)

  18. Roxana c'est M.A.G.N.I.F.I.Q.U.E
    j'aimerais avoir les photos sincèrement un très bon travail une qualité remarquable encore félicitation pour les créations!!!!!!!!

  19. Allan! JE TE REMERCIE DE TOUT COEUR. je suis trop touchee pour dire autre chose.