Did you see that horrible movie by the Wachowskis? No, not the Matrix 2 or 3, but their more recent one. The Cloud Atlas. Yes, it sucked. Now lets move on.
A few years ago I read the book and couldn’t put it down. It pulled it’s literary hands through the pages, placed them around my throat, my eyeballs and my brain and took over.
The Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell is a phenomenal novel (and ignore any impulse to watch the movie instead).
Described as being like russian dolls that nest inside each other, the plot is a series of self standing stories that are also closely entwined. Each section is mysteriously linked to the one before. The book jumps in style, tone, voice and structure quit jarringly at first but soon one discovers that something else is going on.
One of the stories centers on a composer, named Robert Forbisher. He travels to Brussels and apprentices himself to a master musician named Vivian Ayrs who has grown to old to work on his own. Forbisher’s job is to transcribe the music that Ayrs describes. Disgruntled and wrapped up in an illicit affair, Forbisher sends a series of letters to a distant friend and reveals his thoughts to us.
Been thinking of my grandfather, whose wayward brilliance skipped my father’s generation. Once, he showed me an aquatint of a certain Siamese temple. Don’t recall its name, but ever since a disciple of the buddha preached on the spot centuries ago, every bandit king, tyrant, and monarch of that kingdom has enhanced it with marble towers, scented arboretums, gold-leafed domes, lavished murals on its vaulted ceilings, set emeralds into the eyes of its statuettes. When the temple finally equals its counterpart in the Pure Land, so the story goes, that day humanity shall have fulfilled its purpose, and time itself shall come to an end.
To men like Ayrs, it occurs to me, this temple is civilization, The masses, slaves, peasants, and foot soldiers exist in the cracks of its flagstones, ignorant even of their ignorance. Not so the great statesmen, scientists, artists and most of all the composers of the age, any age, who are civilizations architects, masons and priests. Ayrs sees our role is to make civilization more resplendent. my employer’s profoundest, or only, wish is to create a minaret that inheritors of Progress a thousand years from now will point to and say, “Look, there is Vivyan Ayrs.”
How vulgar, this hankering after immortality, how vain, how false. Composers are merely scribblers of cave paintings. One writes music because winter is eternal and because if one didn’t the wolves and blizzards would be at ones throat all the sooner.
That quote jumped out at me and I read it over and over. How perfect an explanation of God’s perfect creation that fell. It soiled itself and chose to dive into the mud. The initital, first creation was golden, beautiful, and well… heavenly. Heaven and visions of paradise float around us in our dreams and our poetry, reminding us of the possiblity of that perfection. Paintings of the garden of Eden and of the pearly gates attempt to explore the memories and hopes for those places. Humans have attempted time and time again to create semblances here on earth; utopian societies have always promised heaven on earth. They have also proven it to be quite hard to attain. How many hippies went to live in the Santa Cruz mountains as counter cultural protest against war and the silver-spoon upper class?
The classic film Lost Horizon portrays Shangri-La, the hidden paradise high in the Himalaya’s, dreamed of but rarely seen. Nestled in a tranquil valley that provides warmth and all the food necessary, those who come never want to leave. They also never seem to grow old. Sounds great doesn’t it?
History and antiquity abound with myths about rivers and cities of gold, legends of the land of milk and honey, or fountains of youth. Even the lovable idiots Harry and Lloyd from Dumb and Dumber dream of Aspen, “where the beer flows like wine and the women flock like the salmon of San Juan Capistrano.”
The transcendence of art also rings of this dream and cry for heaven. Our creative pursuits are evidence of us trying to expand and grow and take our destroyed world back to its first state of pure beauty. We work to decorate and illuminate the darkness, or we mold the clay, write the words and sing the songs that we saw and heard in the beginning. In The Cloud Atlas,Vivyan Ayrs believed that his music was resplendent. His music was made to bring beauty back to the world and to fulfill what was missing. Adding his touches of decor and filligree to the walls of humanities cathedrals was his goal. How many of our favorite artists share that passion for decorating temples?
Forbisher disagrees, as shown by his letter. His explanation of the purpose of art is more pragmatic, art exists to keep us alive. Pure survival. Life is a horrid sea, storming and trying to drown us and art, art is the lifejacket that buoys us to safety. His dark view is also a beautiful one. To him art extends life, we may die a horrible death down the road, but it gives us meaning and purpose while we still breathe. The wolves are coming but music will keep them at the outskirts of its warming, lighting fire through the night.
In both views art transcends. It gives us reason to live and it is life itself. In both views art takes us out of the muck. I am pretty sure David Mitchell wasn’t trying to take it all back to Jesus in his novel, but possibly and unwittingly he does. Jesus wants us to live life and live it to the full. We are here to glorify and decorate but also to be buoys. With some, Christ partied and made wine, he ate and laughed. He enjoyed himself, added filligree and decor to the lives he touched. For some others, he merely pulled them out of death or healed a disease. He snatched people from the wolves. Art and Jesus have a common purpose and maybe that is not accidental. Art needs to have both purposes and cannot be mutually exclusive. The beautiful both-and, like Christ.
The bleakness of reality is…well, reality and our creative expressions need to address that. Many times art is just sentimental cuteness that never acknowledges the reality of reality, the durm und strang of existence. The artist who creates “because if one didn’t the wolves and blizzards would be at ones throat all the sooner,” recognizes that pain exists and without the hope of rescue, we all fall to easily. Art needs to exist on the border, in the no-mans land. Art will make frequent raids into the territory of pain to drag out the weak and wounded, to bring them back into truth and beauty (not to be confused with cuteness and kitsch.) Need an example? The following World War One story will help.
The Khaki Chum’s Christmas Truce.
Christmas eve, 1914. France.
The troops of both armies lay hunkered down in the mud and blood and death and stink of their trenches. We have all seen the movies. Filth and war weren’t celebrating Christmas, and the troops weren’t really either. A few probably gave small gifts of cigarettes or shared stories from the letters home and a few days before the Pope had called for a truce, a chance for men on both sides to celebrate and remember but the generals and commanders had rejected it and even on this day some had died. A sniper had recently shot a young man, barely old enough to shave. The gray sky threatened snow all day, and from time to time dropped freezing rain on the men already soaked to the bone huddling in the earth, already in their graves. Hope, joy were not here. The night was not silent as flares lit the night and machine guns barked randomly through the night. As the sun set and the dark slowly spread, some med began to forget that this night was a special night. They all sunk lower into their holes and caves and soggy blankets, praying against a night attack or plains dropping gas. Many fell asleep, waiting for morning and another day of hell. In the short quiet of the evening, in the scottish side of the line they sat in silence. Too cold, too tired to talk. A few men stood on watch, waiting to see Germans rushing across the short distance, as had happened countless times before. In the twilight, the time between times of dusk they saw the soft glow of lights, hundred appearing in the trees and then faintly heard the sound of singing.
Stille Nacht! Heil’ge Nacht!
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute hoch heilige Paar.
Holder Knab’ im lockigen Haar,
Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh!
On this night, in this war, the Germans (the enemy) were singing and hanging candles in the trees. The men on the British side did not understand the words, but they knew the tune. They sat in silence, the guns faded and the flares ceased. The song wafted into the foxholes and trenches. When it ended, they all sat until a quiet boy from Wales stood and began to sing an english carol. His strong clear voice echoing among the cannons and craters. Man after man joined in and the english were now singing, the germans listening. Back and forth they sang, sharing song and sharing their ears.
Soon after a man called in broken english across to the Brits, “MEET US IN THE MIDDLE!” The lieutenants huddled together deciding if it was a trap, “Remember, they were shooting at us this morning.” One side slowly raised a white flag, and a small group stepped up out of the ground. The Germans sent a few men and they walked towards each other, through the barbed wire, through the craters, and met. They stood in anticipation, on edge. An Englishman reached out a hand, and then an embrace. More cigarettes were passed and whiskey appeared. Smiles and attempts at German and English broke out and men shared photos of their wives. More and more men poured into No-Man’s Land. A chaplain gathered a group of men together and they prayed, reading from Psalms 23. There are even reports that a football game broke out, that these enemies began laughing and playing. Men who had aimed guns at each other now gave gifts, played games and joined in celebrating Christmas. It started with a song, it started with the hope of escape. Music warmed the hearts and laid down the guns in a miracle.
As we stand rescued on the sunny side of the street we should not forget where we have been, it is still in view. Many people walk with blinders, choosing not turn around, painting images of pure drivel and Hello Kitty.
We are here to better the world, to bring witness to the good, the true and the beautiful. which can also be listed as the Good, the True and the Beautiful (those things made flesh.) Like alchemists we strive to take the baser metals and materials and turn them to gold. In reverence and worship and service and supplication we become the hands of God making the world new. The artist Barry Moser sent me an essay by Ingmar Bergman entitled “Art As Worship” and in reading it I was smacked in the face by the ideas from The Cloud Atlas again, of building and beautifying. In the essay, Bergman tells the story of a cathedral that was struck by lightning and burned to the ground, destroyed. Slowly out of nowhere people started pouring into town and began rebuilding it, people from all walks of life joined in. With no regard for praise they worked anonymously. Bergman’s final quote floored me and still does,
Thus if I am asked what I would like the general purpose of my films to be, I would reply that I want to be one [of the] other artists in the cathedral on the great plain. I want to make a dragon’s head, an angel, adevil—or perhaps a saint—out of stone. It does not matter which; it is the sense of satisfaction that counts. Regardless of whether I believe or not, whether I am a Christian or not, I would play my part in the collective building of the cathedral.
One of my favorite Bergman films is Winter Light, an amazing film about doubt and faith in the face of harsh realities. In the film, Lutheran pastor Tomas has lost his wife and is struggling with a doubt that paralyzes him. When a local fisherman comes to him with fears of nuclear war and death Tomas cannot comfort him. Tomas has a mistress who sees her purpose in life is to love him, but he cannot accept it. In a line from the film he tells her “When my wife died, I died.” This is the life represented by the art of Rober Forbisher in Cloud Atlas. Life boat art. Just trying to make it. Day to day existence, forced breath.
Rent the film. It is an amazing statement on faith and its place amongst pain and the cold winter of life. A few months before our movie night I had read an essay by Tobias Wollf, the author of OLD SCHOOL and many other short stories. His essay appreared in the New Yorker and detailed a night of watching WINTER LIGHT in college. Wolff’s essay connected deeply into my thoughts and wonderings. How do we view this stuff and how does it affect us? Another few months before this movie night I started a correspondence with Barry Moser which in one form or another appears as the interview with him in this book. Serendipitously, two days before our movie night Barry sent me a copy of an essay by Ingmar Bergman called ART AS WORSHIP. My jaw dropped as I read his essay and since then re-read and re-jaw dropped as he so succinctly, so beautifully and so perfectly. Have you ever heard some song, or a lecture or read a book and that author or speaker or singer found a way to put into words everything you have failed to verbalize and articulate, as if they have been watching you? Ingmar Bergman has been watching me. He articulates, in his simple poetry of film and of writing to the point, the purpose and the call. “Regardless of whether I believe or not, whether I am a Christian or not, I would play my part in the collective building of the cathedral.” Art is worship, we create to beautify and to give others a place of worship. Vivyan Ayrs, the character in CLOUD ATLAS, “sees our role is to make civilization more resplendent. My employer’s profoundest, or only, wish is to create a minaret that inheritors of Progress a thousand years from now will point to…”
He wants to make our lives and our notions “more resplendent” and to build a minaret of music and culture, a place for us to live in. His tower might be a refuge for those like Forbisher, who need a place to live, to merely dwell. Some artists flounder in survival, making art for others to grasp in their drowning. But artists like Ayrs have created the tower they will retreat to. Ingmar Bergman wants to build cathedrals. Not only places of worship but of refuge. The cathedrals were places one could claim asylum. The cathedrals housed women and children during air raids and bombings, or nursed wounded and sick in their cool, darkened safety. In Oaxaca, Mexico we spent a day wandering the city and were tired and hot. We wandered into the cathedral of the city and sat in the cool half-light. This was a tourist destination but also a place to rest in the quiet. The ceiling covered in ornate carvings of saints and legends, shimmering in gilded paints. The niches in the walls housed icons , tall stained glass windows told stories and in the recesses the flickering of candles and whispers of prayers echoed and reflected. The artistic buildings of Bergman and the fictional characters of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, and of soldiers putting down their guns, are not simple buildings, but ornate places of worship, refuge, safety, coolness, beauty, hope, redemption. This is art, a place for all this to exist.