Rothko Chapel

Scenes from a double life

In the last few months, it feels like I have closed the shudders of the mind and sat in the darkness inside. To a certain extent, even polemic seems distant at this point. Yes, I have continued to blog and translate when I can. But as you can see, I’ve been elsewhere and otherwise busy. Even my intellectual pursuit, medieval metaphysics, has made my thinking quite insular. 

There is a reason for this. As I have insinuated (maybe I am repeating myself), after many months of study and polemic, of going outside myself and trying to disperse the mind into as many situations and arguments as my forces allowed, I felt a bit in the weeds. The subject of this project is too broad, its adherents too diverse, and its rhetoric too raw to be able to get my bearings for more than a short period of time. To deal with this issue or to respond to that argument… in the end, it all becomes too superficial.

That is the danger of nihilism, I suppose: cheap nihilism, easy nihilism. To simply conclude that there is no truth, only feelings; no substance, only surface. But even the most “primitive” peoples didn’t believe that, they too believed in spirits, in things beyond the daily happenings: in an eternity untouched by changeable matter. Maybe they didn’t perceive it very well, but they did perceive it. They knew that there were spirits, ghosts, demons, things that were before them and things in the future that would come after them… One conversation I had indicated to me that “Chicomoztoc,” the Place of the Seven Caves, is itself the human head with its seven caves: the senses being drawn together into what the Scholastics called the “sensus communis,” the common sense that binds all of our perceptions together like the axle unites the spokes of a wheel.

Even the most naked “savage” knew that there was something beyond the senses, beyond the ordinary. Many lived their lives as if this was a reality. Some achieved this state beyond the senses using plants and other materials from nature, other through trances, etc. In our situation, in our rotting material world on which the ideological realm teeters, is it possible to achieve a “philosophia perennis,” a vision of reality that binds all living and dead worlds into one, or at least reduces all of them to what they have in common? The answer of course is no, but you can’t know that really unless you try. And that is what I am doing. First, however, I am shutting all particulars out to achieve a universal, to at some point return to particulars. I do not expect certainty from this, but only clarity concerning the scope and depth of the problem. I know that I will go to my grave a blind animal, blind not only because of my dulled civilized senses, but by the hyper-civilized formation that I will never be rid of.

But of course, the road, this time Houston. I have been to Houston before, and was winded by its sheer size and unyielding modernity. The miles and miles of cement and asphalt, the unforgiving skyline, the unfathomable vastness of roads over filled-in, paved-over swamp. I was reminded why I no longer find cities charming (a bit of an understatement there), but still I could see how one could get lost in them, in the sheer distraction of having everything available under the sun (supposedly).

The brief time I was there, I saw very little that I can remark on. The first thing that was relevant to my interest was Buffalo Bayou Park, which has only been completed in the last couple of years. This is an urban park that stretches miles through the city, following a major bayou needed as drainage in a region that receives 50 inches of rain per year. Of course, here again, civilization takes nature into itself under the guise of working “synergistically” with it. In the park there were helpful and informative signs concerning how the modern vision is to work with nature and not against it. The mayor of Houston is quoted on its shiny website:

Houston owes its very existence to Buffalo Bayou. Today, Buffalo Bayou Partnership is taking a neglected waterway and transforming it into an attractive and inviting gateway into downtown and beyond.

Civilization’s approach to nature is often not “either / or” but “both / and”, even if this approach is false. Who can blame it? Eco-modernists will be the first to jump up and say how nature is change, how previous uncivilized people manipulated their environments in “sophisticated” ways, etc. To be honest, I am tired of arguing with them. As I have stated previously, the empirical evidence is so spotty and the arguments so imbued with epistemic prejudices that I don’t see much of a point in pressing the issue one way or the other. Also, this all smacks of “if I knew the answer, I would be able to implement the solution.” I am a dumb man of around four decades, I know the answer to nothing. I can barely make my own life livable, making a “better world” just seems like a fool’s errand.

The only other task that I imposed on my family was a visit to Rothko Chapel. I have long been a fan of Mark Rothko, and a Rothko-like print hangs prominently in my house. I don’t know why this particular visual artist speaks to me, as I am not big into the visual arts (though as a “cultured person” I know more about them than most). I entered the chapel with my family and was taken aback as to how dark it is. The space consists of fourteen black paintings that surround a circle of benches. It was cloudy when I entered the space, making the paintings all the more dull and ominous. When the sun came out, the light hit the paintings, and I saw the detail, the sublime cloudy window that is a Rothko painting. I sat on a cushion in the middle of the room and blanked out, watching my family out of the corner of my eye lest the children become unruly. That was a sort of Zen-blankness, not something I necessarily associate with the sacred, and not something I was necessarily comfortable with. But it was a feeling of affinity to this stage of intellectual development: close the mind’s eye, and look inside. I am glad I went.

To try to go beyond the senses, beyond our particularity, in a time and place where there is nothing but particularities strung together in a maddening cycle of electronic distraction and communication, will no doubt only result in that blankness. But even if we get nowhere, even if we come home to see only an empty crater of what once was, like that polluted meager creek running past skyscrapers, at least we will know what is there, and maybe we will receive a glimmer of grace from the Unknowable that once had infinite names but now barely has one. I can offer very little in terms of the “active life” to the Tendency, but I can offer at least a small exhortation to return to reverence in the midst of ruin. You will find that reverence in the most unlikely places, but you will have to shut out the noise and realize how small you are. Only in recognizing that smallness is it possible to find (if it is there at all, there is no guarantee) the song that fills eons with its echoes.



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