Tag Archives: nature

Reflections on Lawren Harris

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Quite fortuitously had I been reading Slavoj Zizek’s Event in the TTC on the way to the exhibition “The Idea of North” for the works of Canadian G7 painter Lawren Harris as I read on page 22: “One possibility is that the immensity of the natural world, in its merciless indifference, has nothing to do with the concerns of human beings… the second half of the quote from Job, how the morning stars sing, reminds us that the appreciation of wonder and beauty is also possible. We may lose our ego in nature’s indifference, but we may also lose it in nature’s magnificence. Do we see the world as heartless or as sublime? [italics added]” Quite fortuitous indeed, as these were not Zizek’s words but the words of David Wolpe, who Zizek quoted in one of his stream-of-consciousness like ramblings that demonstrated the breadth and depth of his readings.

Lawren Harris (bear with my dearth of knowledge of his work and Canadian Art in general) experienced and imagined the ‘North’ to be a spiritual milieu in great contrast to the suffering of life in modern cityscapes, like Toronto where he lived. His paintings reflect the immensity of the North, as his tableaus reflect the intercrossings between the artist and the landscape, resulting in strong spiritual shapes of powerful cool colours in conversation with light and darkness. With the light and the darkness I felt both formulations of the natural world described in the first quotation, in the light that of an evocative intersubjective unity and in the darkness a cruel indifference. A painting like Lake Superior (c.1923) (pictured above) contains the contradiction of unity and indifference in a single frame, with the heavens opening up, peeking through the cracks of dark clouds to illuminate the boulders in the lakes in a transcendent oneness, while on the left side darkness reigns, dark shapes forgotten in the non-sight of the obscurity, empty and cold in its separation from the subject.

Both ways of viewing the natural world resonate with my experiences. Following one of Camus’ elaborations of the Absurd as “cette confrontation désespéré entre l’interrogation humaine et le silence du monde,” (this desperate confrontation between human questionings and the silence of the world), there is evidently an uneven separation between the human subject and the natural world. In contrast to this desire for clarity, a desire to move past causal explications towards comprehension, man is left without response. The natural world operates following its own whims forever heedless to our desires. Gazing up at a bed of stars on a clear moonless sky away from the city, face to face with countless glittering lights spread across a pitch black canvass, one can feel the smallness of personal existence under the unresponsive immensity of the heavens. In the grand scheme of things, if we took into account the supposedly billion galaxies in the universe each with (on average) a billion stars each, and in between, nothing but darkness, an unimaginably vast blank empty space, what stops us from concluding that man is only a cosmic accident, an unlikely result of probability, existing without a greater meaning or purpose? Past all my anthromorphic attributions (as I have described the natural world as “operating” following its own whims, and being “heedless” to our desires), the natural world and the universe just is, a constant series of effects and events, in contingent movement.

At the same time, within the same unresponsive natural world one can find acceptance and past separation, unity. A couple of days into a week-long Zen Temple retreat I undertook in the mountains of Korea after graduating high school, I remember suddenly experiencing a shift in the way I experienced the world. Within the horizontal flow of time I felt a vertical, qualitative dimension. In the next few days I lived in brief encounters with the “no-mind” state, the temple’s Head Masters told me about, a state that opens up after one stops thinking and starts being. The “no-mind” state is a shared state with the universe, and in this state I felt unity and harmony and beauty, a lived sense of the sublime.

With these oppositions in mind I enjoyed the rest of Harris’ tableaus of the North, these mysterious cold spaces of emptiness and profundity.

Stoic Acceptance

IMG943  This past week and a half has been difficult; a fever for two days, a stubborn cold, all with bad sleep throughout. A sudden change in the temperature had me accidentally giving improper care to my body, and I slept under one blanket, not two. The next morning I woke up with hints of fever which later developed into its mature form. Taking two hour long naps in the afternoon, not being able to sleep at night has me in disarray both physically and mentally. Weather quickly changes in Taipei, as humid and cool has quickly turned to humid and hot. Last night had me tossing and turning for hours as heat and incessant coughing kept me up to hear the birds chirping for the start of their day, which was soon followed by sounds of morning from my neighbours’ rooms. I am hoping that tonight won’t be as bad of an experience, but the signs do not look positive so I am writing for good use of time.

This has me dreaming of Toronto, where it is the time for the wonderful springtime weather. By this time, Toronto would be past its long winter cold, and spring would be in full blossom, with sunshine and growing greenery warmly welcoming Torontonians towards the outdoors under a lengthening sun. Instead of the 4 by 3 metre prison I am in, with a miserable foot by foot window in the bathroom for ventilation and cockroaches and spiders for company, I could be at home, going from spacious room to spacious room at my fancy, sleeping on the sofa or in the basement room if my own bed shows signs of hostility, sitting and enjoying a natural sunlight smiling in from wide windows on the black leather sofa, while reading a book or admiring the scenery before me gradually opening up with life.

As I sit in front of the computer with a less than fully functioning mind, a sticky body due to the warmth and humidity and with the formation of a slight plea towards an otherworldly force for a quick recovery, I start thinking of Stoicism. Cultivated by the Greeks, adopted and nurtured by the Romans, its existence has been a source of reassurance and acceptance when the chaos of the world confounds me. Due to limited scholarship on the subject, there is not much that I can expertly write about, but from my understanding it is about ‘living in accordance with nature,’ through acceptance of nature’s will, fate. I particularly find it useful for its practicality in dealing with worldly matters. To give you a direct experience of Stoicism, here is an excerpt that I found particularly moving and profound. This is from Letters from a Stoic, Letter LXV.

“I am too great, was born to too great a destiny to be my body’s slave. So far as I am concerned that body is nothing more or less than a fetter on my freedom. I place it squarely in the path of fortune, letting her expend her onslaught on it, not allowing any blow to get through it to my actual self. For that body is all that is vulnerable about me: within this dwelling so liable to injury there lives a spirit that is free.”

Reading writings of Stoicism remind me that inside of the body which bears the changing currents of nature’s temperaments, there exists an entity that is able to freely decide how to respond. There is always this choice: I can either choose to be beaten down by my current misfortunes or accept nature’s will and be forever content. Although it is paradoxical, it is only with wholehearted acceptance of fate that we are able to control it. With my current situation I have these options as well. I can either curse the series of events that have led to this situation, and feed a growing anxiety and irritation, or just accept circumstances for what they are and nourish contentment.

In life, it is invariable that there will be times of distress and disaster. Life is a personal journey with an undeterminable end. There will be times of infinite happiness but also times with uncertain paths, bad weather and accidents. When the path is nice with sunny weather and the irrepressible desire for a song to be sung, nothing can go wrong. However, the opposite can manifest as suddenly as the coming of a tempest. Through these seemingly terrible times we can choose to preserve our indomitable spirit by unreservedly offering our physical shell to the whims of nature, and continue traversing towards our destination with a great humour.

 

 

Picture: Budapest