The Wisdom of the Nostril

Notes from 10 days of silent meditation

In October, I went to a Vipassana meditation retreat, where I sat in silence in a dim room. This is the story of what that did to my brain.

 

Warning: Everyone’s meditation experience is different, and mine was unusually positive (and weird!). If you’re considering going on a retreat yourself, reading this might distort your expectations or spoil the experience. Proceed at your own risk.


During breaks between meditations, we walk around the grounds — a parking lot, a border of grass, half a dozen trees. What a miserable place!

Another student is circling the lot in the opposite direction. I’m supposed to ignore the other people, behave as if I were the only one in the course, but every time I pass her, I feel my calm turn to panic. How do I look? What does she think of me?

After five loops, I notice something. None of my thoughts are about her. (“What does she think of me?” doesn’t count.)

After six loops: What if she’s thinking “What is she thinking about me?”

In my 29 years, I have never had this thought. I have never passed another human being and entertained the hypothesis that they are as uninterested in me as I am in them.


In the evenings, we watch “discourses” — videos of S.N. Goenka, the founder of Vipassana centers across the globe, pontificating about his Buddhism-inspired doctrines. As the “assistant teacher,” the flesh-and-blood woman seated at the front of the meditation hall, explains, Goenka is the “real” teacher of the course. “Through these videos, he is here with us in a real way.”

That may be. Nonetheless, S.N. Goenka has been dead for six years.


The wind is enormous; the leaves swoosh in pirouetting columns. They dance together, but fall to the ground individually, the silence of touchdown always starker than I expect.

I stand in the wind, bask in the power. If we were allowed to, I’d twirl too. I’d run like I did that day, many years ago, when everything outside sang “spring!” and everything inside joined in the song — until the child I was became a sprint of joy around my home.


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© 2009 John A. Basanese

 

What a miserable place…

Until I start to notice. A glint of spiderweb in the setting sun. The coarseness of tree trunks. Each blade of grass nodding in the wind.

A glint of spiderweb in the setting sun… Then another, another, another… The whole lawn is a glistening tapestry, a portal into a new dimension.

By day 2, I suspect that this miserable parking lot contains more beauties than I could ever count.


I was a child with a backyard once. Of course a few square yards reveal a new treasure each day.

So this is happiness? Just a return to childhood? Wasn’t there something more, some promise my parents saw in me that I have yet to fulfill?


The toughest thing about not being allowed to speak is roommates. One of mine sets her alarm to snooze, then goes to the 4:30 AM meditation. When the damned thing goes off, I don’t know how to silence it without taking out the batteries. A few minutes later, she’s back, putting the batteries in and starting another round of earsplitting beeping. As if that weren’t enough, she decides that this is the perfect moment to take out her can of nauseating “air freshener” and spray it vigorously throughout the room.

There’s no way I’ll fall asleep now, so there’s nothing left to do but mutter “are you kidding me?!” under my breath and storm out to the meditation hall.

“Let go of anger; it only hurts you,” Goenka had said. I hate this advice so much. It punishes me twice: first I have to suffer the air freshener, then I have to deprive myself of the satisfaction of anger. It’s not fair!

Fair or not, following Goenka’s instructions is what I came here for. I try to make myself comfortable on the cushion, coax my mind towards the breath. Behind me, someone repeatedly shifts their position. They must be so angry at me for sitting so damned straight!

Breathe in. Breathe out. Someone coughs. I hate them with every inch of my being.

As soon as I catch myself, the anger evaporates. People were coughing all day yesterday, and I hardly noticed. So this hatred, this suffering — this came from me?

I think of every argument I’ve ever had, every argument that I didn’t start. Now, there is no one else to blame.

Towards my roommate, I feel only gratitude.


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Redwood National and State Parks. Possibly the source of my vision.

 

The visions start with trees. I close my eyes to meditate and see a pine swaying in rainy wind, the color sapped by soft mist. It’s like something from Planet Earth, only realer. There is so much space it takes my breath away. Except… the breath is what I’m supposed to be focusing on.

Goenka had said to meditate and ignore thoughts. That I can do — but what about visions? Didn’t he also said never to meditate with our eyes open, because it’s too distracting? What if my eyes remain open to sights no matter how tightly I shut them?

“Can we follow the breath?” I had asked my brain. “Boring!” it had answered. “I’ll turn on the TV.”


I am happy here, and peaceful, but I’m starting to get impatient. Why am I looking at spiderwebs and grasses? Wasn’t I supposed to be figuring out my life? Taking this time to think about how to be a better person? Learning about my values, what I want to accomplish in this life? Finding my fatal flaw, the hidden part of me I keep tripping over?


Image for postWhen I close my eyes to meditate, I see a dozen signs, broken into pieces.

They all say “THINK.”


95% of the words I hear here are hypnotically repeated by a dead person.

“PA-tient-ly and per-SIS-tent-ly,” Goenka reminds us in a singsong voice at the start of each meditation.

During the evening discourse, he insists that what he is teaching isn’t a religion. “This is not sectarian! This is universal!” he articulates.

As if that settled it — as if any sect thought its beliefs something other than universal.


“What are my values?” I wonder again. Goenka is stuck in my head: “This is not sectarian; this is universal.”

Suddenly, I understand. I thought I was free to pick and choose my values; I had wanted to stamp my name on everything, even on morality: to be not just good, but good in my own special way. But there is only one morality, and it is universal, captured in the phrase: May all beings be happy.

But how to follow that phrase? I hardly give a thought to morality in my life. I’m not altruistically motivated. I fear I’m not a very good person.

Another thought comes. Don’t be good. Just be. Do good.


We focus on our breath. I have visions of tunnels: long, profound, and with light at the end. If they didn’t always come in pairs, I’d think they were the path to enlightenment.

As it stands, they are probably nostrils.


What do I want from this life?

In my heart of hearts, I know: I want to be special. To accomplish something utterly unique, be unquestionably best.

There are 7.5 billion people alive on this planet. Billions more came before, there are trillions to come. Me — special? Best at anything?

I realize I have been hiding this fact, the fact of the world’s populousness, from myself. Now, face-to-face with this terrifying reality, I am flooded with a wave of… relief, happiness, love.

7.5 billion people, billions before, trillions to come. Not one of them any less important than me. Is anything more beautiful than this?


In the breeze, each leaf is a hand: waving, flicking, twitching. How have I never noticed? Had my brain been editing out all this, fabricating a static, stabler world for me, for fear I couldn’t handle this much change? Had I said, thought something that made it believe I wanted that? “I’m a painter, edit out the motion?”

What had that static world been like? I search through memory and come up empty handed. The breeze, the sum of the leaves’ flapping — but not the flapping… What was it that I saw, before I could see?


We focus on our breath. I feel every one of of my nose hairs. I see a statue of a Buddha, an index finger stuck up each nostril.


Image for postI expected to be bored here: sitting motionless and with closed eyes for ten hours a day, talking to no one, circling a tiny parking lot. In fact, I am overwhelmed, overstimulated. When my eyes are open, every square inch of my visual field is crowded with beauty. Closing them is even worse; that’s when the visions happen.

I am sick of beauty; I only want a scrap of rest for my eyes. I sit under a tree and direct my eyes to the most boring thing I can find: a patch of dried grass.

The grass, strewn with warm-colored, richly corrugated leaves, twists all in one direction — as if someone had carefully combed through a head of stiff, golden curls. It takes my breath away.

You don’t always get what you want — but maybe you do get what you need.


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We focus on our breath.

In the left half of my visual field, there is an otter. Slowly and perfectly peacefully, it’s turning its face from left to right. Its nose, majestically lifted to the heavens, twitches like a rabbit’s, encircled by a halo of the most spectacular whiskers I have ever seen.

The vision is so insanely beautiful, so beautifully insane, that meditating feels futile. Instead, I uncross my legs and bask in the glow of those whiskers.

Touché, brain, touché.


During a rainy walk, I realize: I’m always waiting for a purpose, always dreaming that, like Proust or Van Gogh, I’ll snatch my uniqueness from the jaws of death, prove myself worthy in the nick of time.

Every time I check my inbox, every time I avert my eyes before a stranger, I’m hoping they will hand me my purpose, waiting to be told I am justified and fearing that I am not.

Sometimes a message in the inbox briefly resembles that hoped-for justification. An essay is featured on Medium’s front page. “I’m awestruck by your career as a Harvard PhD student,” a friend of a friend writes.

Inevitably, reading these messages leaves me emptier than I started. Maybe I inflate for a moment — but this balloon is riddled with holes.

I am looking in the wrong place.

I don’t need a justification. I am not the sort of thing that could be justified.

The thought is as clear and beautiful as the rain. I take off my hat; the downpour bursts into roaring all around me. Each leaf on the ground is its own crisp thing. In this world, so full of being, I don’t need a justification.

I squat under my umbrella, amid the roaring rain and glistening leaves — and weep with joy.


In one of the puddles, a miracle is happening. Rain rebounds from the surface, forming fountains strung from individual drops. It’s as beautiful as a nature documentary, as detailed as Edgerton’s milk-splash photographs. My eyes can do this? Why didn’t anybody tell me?

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Harold Edgerton, Milk Drop Coronet, 1957.

 

I had wanted to be like some tropical fish, justified by its uniqueness. Does the stonefish wake smiling to know no one else is as venomous? Is the sunfish any happier because it’s the biggest?

I turn the thought around in my mind: I don’t have, couldn’t have, don’t need a justification. One side of the thought looks like nihilism: my life has no purpose. If I were religious, I’d call the other side grace, God’s unconditional love.

Nothing matters: no matter what, we are worthy.


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The sunfish, or mola mola, one of the world’s heaviest bony fish.

I dream that, needing rest, I book a vacation in an unfamiliar Chinese city. When I arrive, I don’t have a hotel room, don’t speak the language, don’t have the eyes to see the sights — and only want to sleep.

When I wake, the dream is every one of my vacations: “resting” by going somewhere new and overwhelming. And the newest, most overwhelming place yet is… right here.

My brain: the most foreign city of all.


We are focusing on the sensations on the strip of skin between the nose and the lip. I feel a pattering of sensations, tingles erupting in tune with the sound of rain which streams in from the window, and I remember that Paul Simon lyric:

I know that I am like the rain
There but for the grace of you go I.


Over breakfast, I am skeptical. What was yesterday’s great big insight? That I don’t need a purpose? I.e. that I’m an end in itself, not a means to an end? A human being, not a lawnmower? Didn’t I learn that in Philosophy 101?

Then I understand. It’s not just that I’m not a lawnmower — but that I thought that I was. That was the insight.

I honestly and truly hoped that an angel would come down from heaven and tell me: Thou shalt be a lawnmower. And then, finally satisfied, I would mow off into the sunset.

I thought I meant something more reasonable when I wished for a purpose. But there is nothing else a purpose could be. Maybe on my wiser days, I hoped not for an angel from heaven, but for self-determination: the power to create my own purpose. But that doesn’t make sense either: that would be willing myself to be a lawnmower.


Image for postAfter breakfast, the lawn has strutted into high society. Each blade of grass, each thread of spiderweb wears its own freshly strung, limited-edition necklace. Clovers balance their pearls precariously on the edge of their hats, each arrangement more impossible than the last.

The costumes all astound me, but I give first prize to the caterpillar sporting a glamorous cape of droplets over his striped and fluffy suit. He turns to face me, and I can’t stop the wave of disgust: his mandible is enormous! “Perfect equanimity,” Goenka says in my head.

The caterpillar chomps on — with that glorious, awe-inspiring jaw.


Some part of me is unhappy with the new eyes. I’m an artist, but so much of this new beauty is unpaintable: the particularities of motion, the tiny detailed spiders and caterpillars. It’s more suited to the camera than to my impressionistic brush; more scientific than artistic.

I thought I noticed a lot. Maybe I noticed more than the average person, but that difference is nothing compared to how much I see now.

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The particularity of branches. (Taken after the retreat.)

I thought I was sensitive, a good appreciator — but there is no such thing as being a good appreciator. You can only learn to pay attention, humbly and without expectations; appreciation, if it comes at all, comes on its own.

Gloomily, I look up at the branches overhead. I love, as I always have, the stained-glass glow of their red and orange leaves, but there is something new too: the lead frame of the stained glass, the dark twisting particularity of the branch.

Another student walks by, sees me rooted to the spot before the tree. “I’m such a great appreciator,” I think instinctively.


The visions become something from a cheap horror film. Bats. A long-nosed witch who turns out to be an embarrassing caricature of one of the students. Swarms of cockroaches — with no disgust attached. Cemeteries. Crosses, imbued with a significance I hadn’t felt since my Catholic childhood.

Then: a pile of loose teeth.


I wanted to have a purpose, to be special. I see how self-centered that is now — but where did this egotism come from? Being the top student in my class? Having parents who thought I was special?

But whose parents didn’t find them special? What if what is making me egotistical is simply the human condition? What if I’m self-conscious simply because I want to be liked, self-centered because “at the center” is where my point of view places me — and where everybody’s point of view places them?

I feel disappointed. I was happy to accept that my flaw was egotism — as long as it was my own special brand of egotism. I could have a tragic flaw — as long as it was my very own, special flaw; as long as I was still the hero of the play.


I ask the teacher about the visions. She says they’re a sign I’m very focused.

The last thing this ego needs to hear is that it’s a good meditator.

When I sit cross-legged, my legs and feet go numb almost immediately. I quickly learn that this numbness isn’t actually painful — and if, after shifting my position, I stay perfectly still and watchful, neither is the return of sensation, which I experience simply as a tingle.

This time, though, I’ve let my attention wander away from my awaking legs. Suddenly, I feel a pang so sharp that I barely stop myself from screaming.

Sharp, but not painful. In the middle of the intensity, there is a strange… emptiness.


It’s the “strong determination” session; I’m supposed to remain entirely motionless for an hour, scanning my body for sensations. I have a horrific backache.

The shoulder, the elbow, the hand. “Pay attention to me! This is urgent!” my back screams. I ignore it with all my might. The neck, the chest, the belly. When I finally, finally get to the lower back, I try to find the pain. Where is it, exactly? What, exactly, does it feel like? I subdivide the back into tiny patches, examine each one carefully. The harder I look, the less I find — until suddenly it’s like someone has spread a minty ointment over the entire area, which erupts into tingles.

The sensation is staggeringly powerful — but without a trace of suffering. I’m plunged into a storm at sea — a sea of pure power, far beyond the land of pleasure and pain.


Is pain an illusion, then? Like many philosophers, I thought that if I can know anything, I can know when I’m in pain — but in the meditation room, I didn’t know. And it had always seemed self-evidently true that that there couldn’t be such a thing as unperceived pain. Now I’m beginning to suspect that the only pain there is is unperceived, or at most indistinctly perceived… See it completely clearly, and it vanishes.

My worldview is collapsing. I don’t mind. I don’t mind at all.


In bed, my feet cramp in a tangle of knots. The pain which is maybe an illusion keeps me up for hours.


In my dream, I run through long, white, twisting corridors. They take me to an enormous room, its floor packed with colorful balls — like one of those ball pits for children. Above the balls, the room is tall, spacious, wonderful.

The dream comes with a certainty: I am inside my mind.


In the morning, I think of misery, misery, misery. I had been staggeringly less happy than I thought. I had been drowning in the ball pit of my mind, only seeing the world through chinks in my swarming thoughts. I thought I knew beauty, peace, joy… but that had been only a drop in the ocean of happiness that could be mine. And how many more people are like this: run to the ground by their own habits, spending their lives chasing power and glory, fool’s gold worth less than the spiderwebs in their own yards!

I pity not just the poor, the oppressed, the victims — but the millionaires, the oppressors, the perpetrators. May they find their way, as speedily and painlessly as possible, to such joy as I am feeling now; may all beings be happy.


The teacher meets with the students one by one and asks them if they were able to sit still for an hour. No, it was so hard! No, so painful! So miserable!

I feel my chest swell with joy. I’m a better meditator!

Crap.


What we’re all practicing here is detachment; I’m starting to feel uncomfortable about this fact. Specifically, I’m worried about love. Can you have love without attachment? I always suspected that you couldn’t.

Which is ironic, considering that I’ve had this feeling of unattached love, in one of the most beautiful experiences of my life.

I had only been dating my partner for a few weeks when I knew. Knew not just that I loved him, but that I had already loved him for some time. It was like waking to a bell and knowing you’d been counting the beats in your sleep: love had run out ahead of its knowledge. Slowly, it had been flowing in, easing me in, filling the room around me — and when I awoke, I was submerged in certainty.

That moment of realization was perfectly self-sufficient. It was so early in the relationship; I knew nothing was certain. Maybe tomorrow he’d leave; maybe I would. That was completely irrelevant.

This, now, would always be beautiful.


Image for postI see a derpy fish, slack-jawed, eyes half open, mouth pointed to the sky. It’s a perfect caricature: I’m meditating so intently that my eyes have rolled back in their sockets and my mouth hangs open.

In my body scans now, I feel tingles everywhere. Am I creating them, somehow? Or are they always there, my mind simply too dull to notice?

People complain that love weakens with time. Relationships may strengthen over the years, but feelings are flimsy. Two years into it, or twenty, the commitment may be there, but the feeling isn’t what it used to be.

What if it’s not like this? What if, like tingles on your skin, like spiderwebs crisscrossing your lawn, like the highway by which you’ve built your house, your love is always there, as loud and strong as it’s ever been? What if you’ve simply grown numb to it — precisely because it is always there?


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Like this, but with ears flapping.

 

I see a stately dog, nose pointed exaltedly to the sky, curly-haired ears flapping in the wind.

Were the visions of the saints and mystics like this? Something less out of a painting and more out of a nature documentary?


They say that when God created the world, he made things one by one. When he was finished, he looked over all he had made and saw that it was very good.

Here, new things are made for me each day. Just now, it’s the tininess of a spider’s abdomen, like an eye of a needle too small for me to thread. Then, the hoppitiness of cicadas, ten minuscule creatures jumping every second where a day ago there was only grass. Then the multiplicity, the sixness, of an ant’s legs.

Things are made for me one by one; I see that they are very good.


It used to make me so sad to think of all the people who gave up their lives for false religions. But what if the ascetics really gave up nothing at all, and gained the beauty of the world? What if even the martyrs felt not suffering, but intensity?


I wept with joy when I understood that I wasn’t a lawnmower. Then I learned that pain is maybe an illusion… and shrugged my shoulders.

Until, that is, I thought of grief. If a stupid backache is a thing of sublime power, then how much more sublime the pain of losing a loved one must be!

I catch a faint outline of this beautiful feeling: a grief without a trace of self-pity. A grief fully concerned with the departed and the relationship, and not at all with the one who remains.

A grief that, in the end, is only another form of love.


The visions turn kaleidoscopic. Vivid geometric shapes tessellate with body parts. Meditators form paper doll chains. Then they are only legs, connected by long wooden planks, walking, walking, walking…

It’s raining again. On the uneven parking lot, the puddles turn to streams. Motion piles on motion: swaying curtains of rain running raindrop-feet across rivulets, joining into wind-ruffled rivers.

I know that I am like the rain — flowing, flowing, flowing…


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J.M.W. Turner, Snow Storm — Steam Boat off a Harbor’s Mouth (c. 1840)

 

If love is a sea, then grief is a storm at sea.

And if the storm comes — when the storm comes — let me be there fully. Let me not hold my head under, let me not fight the waves — but only feel them breaking against my skin.

This is what I’m practicing for.


Goenka warns us not to get too attached to the pleasant tingles. This surprises me. Pleasant? I find the feeling interesting, but emotionally neutral. (Occasionally, when it keeps me up at night, it’s mildly annoying.) The sensation itself is very similar to the feeling of my feet waking up from numbness…

What if that’s exactly what it is? The feeling of being alive, of blood circulating in my veins — normally noticed only after the flow had been cut off, but really always there?

What if love is like this too? What if I had always felt the love I discovered at the start of my relationship? What if it’s always the same love: the love for our parents we are born with? A love we can redirect and multiply, but never lose?

What if we are born into love and die in love?


What the hell would that even mean, that “it’s always the same love”? Isn’t love just some cocktail of neurotransmitters, anyway?

Okay, so I’m probably wrong. How calmly this thought comes! I am learning humility and patience; yesterday’s profound insight is today’s idiotic nonsense, but it may also be the seed of tomorrow’s wisdom.

For the moment, what is sprouting from this broken seed is curiosity. What is love, scientifically? What about pain? What happened in that meditation room, when my pain turned to tingles — was it something in my brain, in my back, both? Is pain built up of tingles, the way an image on a screen is made up of pixels? Or did I somehow use my mind to give myself a massage, the way a cat can soothe herself with her purring? Is purring a form of meditation? How do cicadas make their music? When an ant walks, in what order does it move its legs?

When have I last felt this curious? When have I wanted to know not because it would be the missing piece of my brilliant argument, not because one ought to know, not because it was difficult — but simply because it was interesting?

This answer, too, comes calmly. I never wanted knowledge; I wanted to be smart. Even the logic puzzles from childhood: I loved the thrill of solution less than my dad’s admiration. And now? What sort of person goes to Oxford, then Harvard, to study mathematics and philosophy, maybe the purest of disciplines? Who locks herself into a degree with no career prospects beyond academia?

Someone who loves knowledge for knowledge’s sake? Someone who wants you to believe that.


God help me, I am appreciating the asphalt… So much texture, so many little different stones! On top of this: the glorious randomness of scattered acorns, their shadows in the evening light long and blue, their caps as dappled and detailed as the ground.

What if everything is beautiful?


Image for postIt’s the last session of the day, and I am collapsing with exhaustion. I give up, uncross my legs, give in to the warm woozy feeling.

I see kittens and puppies wrapped in soft blankets.

If my hallucinations reveal anything about my subconscious, it’s that I really love adorable animals.


I dream that I’m on a bus, falling asleep. I awake to the blank confusion of an unfamiliar bed.

Then I understand: I woke from the dream, not in it.

Image for postI see a squirrel drop an acorn in bewilderment, startled by a compatriot. I startle too, because suddenly they are also my compatriots — enough mind in each tiny body to see the world with, to lose in thoughts, to find in blank confusion and in the gaze of another.

They chase each other through the treetops, all balance and exhilaration. Before the jump, they accelerate, the springboard-branch bouncing back beneath their feet — and I am almost flying through the air with them.

So this is where I live: in a world sliced into endless points of view, a world of worlds!


“Clearing my mind” had sounded scary, as if my brain would end up bland and empty. But it doesn’t feel empty; it feels spacious. Like a great meadow capable of holding the squirrels and the caterpillars — and, one suddenly-possible day, each one of 7.5 billion people.


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Minor White, Empty Head, 1962 (Minor White Archive, Princeton University Art Museum. © Trustees of Princeton University.)

 

I feel physically lighter, like someone had taken a ton of bricks off my head. Goenka says that there are 99 tons left. I don’t believe him — and yet I didn’t notice the first ton until it was gone either.


Goenka wants us to meditate during every waking moment of the next two days. “When you’re not sitting in the hall, always remain aware of some sensation in your body.”

I am resentful when I hear this. I was going to look at so many squirrels, so many dappled leaves with my new eyes! I can’t do that and pay attention to bodily sensations… But when I leave the hall, I try it out anyway: staying inside my body for a moment longer. I take a step.

“Tom Murphy,” photograph by Minor White, 1947 (© Trustees of Princeton University).

The ground against my foot — the softness of the carpet, the hardness of the floor — is like inheriting some great fortune. Like finding that the shapeless box I have been using as a doorstop is a chest of jewels or a precious book. So this is what it’s like to have a body?

The highest spiritual truth: the ground underneath my feet.

I keep walking. I feel the pendulum swing of my arms, the way my hands brush against my hips. So this was always here?

I remember the branch bouncing back under the squirrel’s nimble feet, and I realize that, rather than a chore, Goenka had given me a gift.

I knew the grace in a squirrel’s body before I knew it in my own.


One of the meditation instructions I followed before coming here told me to “pay attention to my body as a whole.” I never understood what that meant.

Now I do. It feels like arrival. It feels like inheriting the earth.

This body is my home.

At this thought, my rib cage expands in a storm of vibration, of emotion. I have never felt it like this: a hard tube over a soft inside.

This body is my home — and all these years I have been squatting in the attic somewhere… I never knew about all this space down here — and yet it was me who had piled the floors so high with junk that I had had to move out.

What was that vibration, that powerful feeling? A single gasping sob.

Aged 29, born again.


Each sip of morning coffee whooshes down my throat with astonishing speed, as if I had just poured it vertically down a well. I feel the warmth follow, descending down my gullet and spreading across my abdomen. What a marvelous machine!

That heavy tome I’d been using as a doorstop? It must have been the instruction manual for this brain.

Instruction manual? So I am a lawnmower? A lawnmower towards enlightenment?


I suddenly know that my PhD thesis is wrong. I have been like the blind man grasping at the tusk of an elephant, dreaming up an ivory body for it, spending years arguing with other blind men about whether elephants are rough or smooth, sharp or blunt. I thought beauty was an experience, the creation of the sensitive mind. Now I think aesthetic experience leads out of itself, to a land where maybe, just maybe, the Beautiful is the True, is the Good.

I came here to learn better focus, to finish that damned dissertation. Well, I got more than I bargained for.


Everyone in the meditation hall appears to have a cold. The coughs come a dozen a minute, and I feel each one in my body, a startling stab coming from the direction of the cough. How do you not move under such circumstances? Each minute is an eternity.

When the gong finally rings, it too goes on and on. What if no one in the hall is actually sicker than they were yesterday, the sharpness of the coughing caused only by sharper ears?


I spent a year looking at sunsets, and still I’ve never seen it like this: the clouds not just pink and orange, but also swirling and floating. But the real gift comes out of the corner of my eye: the sharpness of each individual feather; flapping that isn’t a blur, but real, blissful motion.

The birds fly across the sky — like something spilling.


The coughing is equally loud this session, but where before I felt a single stab, there are now two sensations: an emotionally neutral bodily tension followed by a flinching away. I stop flinching; the coughing doesn’t bother me anymore.


I sign up for a meeting with the assistant teacher. I want to talk about my doomed dissertation. Not because it hurts to be wrong — it doesn’t — but because my time here is ending and I don’t know how to talk about it to my professors when I return.

Half an hour before the meeting, I am drowning in fear. Why did I sign up for this, ask such a stupid question? What could she possibly know about academic philosophy?

Eight days’ worth of insights vanish into thin air; the world is unmanageable again. So this is how it will be when this is over? Every meeting as terrifying and overwhelming as it’s ever been?

I don’t need to worry about that just now. I take a breath, close my eyes. My heart is a caged bird trying to escape. I observe the feeling. It’s no different, I realize, from the way my heart would thump after a sprint. By itself, the feeling doesn’t mean anything, except that it must continue for a little while, then die down. I am not a caged bird.

The teacher tries to be helpful, but — she apologizes — she knows almost nothing about academic philosophy.

It’s exactly as I feared; it isn’t scary at all.


On day 10, we can talk again. But first, a new type of meditation.

In theory, loving-kindness meditation is a balm for the soul. In practice, it’s Goenka’s hopelessly vague instructions (“send out feelings of love and happiness to all beings”) followed by a chant of “Looove” in a terrifyingly crackling voice. In practice, it’s nine days’ worth of openmindedness starting to escape me.

In theory, when we exit the hall, our new love and compassion will shine through our voices. In practice, the first person to use her voice does so to exclaim:

“How the hell am I supposed to send out love to all beings if I don’t know how to even feel love for myself?!”


We form smaller groups and share our experiences.

Horrific flashbacks. Thoughts spiraling inwards and downwards. Incredible difficulty. For 4 of the 9 days, I wanted to leave!

My heart sinks — but not because I feel sorry for them, these women whose retreats had been so much harder, so much less joyful than mine.

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Same reason as that of any sadness: I wanted something; I didn’t get it. I had been hoping to excitedly exchange the joys of the retreat. Instead, they ask me “What was the hardest part for you?” and I frantically search my memory for something that won’t make them feel jealous.

And another thing: I am, apparently, the happiest meditator in the group. That I had wanted — but when I get it, the gift turns bitter and lonely.

I am, once again, the most tropical fish.


It’s the last morning, before sunrise. The sliver of a moon is as luminous as it’s ever been — but what really astounds me is the dark side, its edge perfectly set off from the sky, the shape of the dark-light whole visibly spherical.


Inside the dining hall, the air vibrates with kindness and conversation. I join a table, excitedly exchanging the joys of the retreat.

I walk around the parking lot. Another student is circling the lot in the opposite direction. I smile; she smiles; we don’t have to ignore each other anymore.

The smile is like nothing I’ve ever seen. As grand and generous as the sun, it holds nothing back. Her whole unique being is there at the surface, summoned by the smile to greet me.

Bathed in its warmth, I realize: I’d been so afraid, so busy worrying what people thought about me that I never bothered to look up and check. I’d walked the streets with averted gaze, casting glances only long enough to confirm that no one meant too much harm. Extracting the fact of the smile but not its warmth, not its perfect individuality. Leaving the gift unopened; not giving.

Suddenly, I remember. I have seen this smile before. Only that stranger had been… a baby.

But then what has this been, if not ten days of rebirth? And who are we, if not two infants on the shore of a new world, trusting?

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Photo by Karen Wiltshire.

Coda

On the bus ride home, a bleary-eyed woman spills iced coffee at the feet of a fellow passenger. By the time I consider hesitating, I am already handing them a box of tissues. A moment later, the two travelers are night shift workers bonding over their shared experiences.

Would their interaction had gone differently if I hadn’t intervened? That’s not the point. The point is I never used to be the person handing out the tissues. By the time I’d make up my mind whether to say “do you want a tissue?” or “would you like some tissues?,” they would already be soaked with coffee and dripping with anger and defensiveness.

After nine days of ignoring other people, I have learned to see them.

Home, I turn on the music player.

I know that I am like the rain
There but for the grace of you go I

Suddenly, I am singing. I startle at the sound of my own voice: deep, confident, powerful.

In first grade, my music teacher had mocked the low tuneless rumble that came out when I tried to sing. Then my dad got me a piano keyboard and I spent hours matching my voice to its tone. The next year, the teacher declared that a miracle had happened: I could hold a tune — and so high, too, like those other girls, the angelic sopranos!

From then on, I squeaked along with my second-hand voice, an alto (if she dared sing at all) playing at a soprano.

As I sing — beautifully imperfectly — I let all that go. I don’t need to be angelic. I don’t need to be musically gifted; I don’t need to sing in tune. I don’t need to be good at everything. I don’t need to be good at anything.

And so, after ten days of letting go — of any claim to uniqueness, of everything I thought was mine, of the very notion of “mine” — I have found my voice.

 

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Three Boys and a Suitcase: Sketches from Dakar

Sometimes moving to a new place means noticing more. You appreciate everything, take in the smallest details — the light falling on the river, the split-second delight on the face of the children passing by, holding ice cream. Your vision sharpens; you catch every nuance you would have missed at home.

When I moved to Dakar, this didn’t happen to me. Instead, during the first few months, I was almost entirely blind. I saw splotches of color walking the street, things whose name was only “new.” I didn’t venture out much — I’d get overwhelmed after a block, lost after two. I didn’t look at people while I walked; their looking back felt threatening. Thinking I wanted a ride, taxi drivers would honk at me twenty times on one walk. I’d get exhausted just from shaking my head.

Now, after three months, I’m starting to see. The pale pastel houses. The dark, dense, dear trees. The mosaic sidewalks, crumbling round the edges, that aren’t really for walking. They’re for setting up your fruit stand, sitting to chat with your neighbor, parking your car, ducking when a honking taxi prevents from walking on the sandy street. A sort of extended doormat, a different color for each home, they belong less to the pedestrians and more to the houses. Sometimes a tree or a car takes up half the sidewalk. Sometimes there’s a barrier right through the middle, separating one pattern of mosaic from the next.

I see all these things now. Dakar is a place, a stable backdrop to daily life. It has an atmosphere. Tufty clouds; strong contrasts of light and shade; warmth on your skin. The sweet smell of incense — a newness in the air felt the moment I arrived here, but only noticed when a guidebook named it. Fruit sellers’ melodic chants of the names of their offerings. Children singing. Goats bleating.

The people, though, still blur and disappear. Every moment in a taxi is a revelation — lost the next instant. A grain of Sahara sand falling through my fingers. The colorful clothes — yellow and turquoise, pink and purple, checkered, striped, polka-dotted, everything in between. I wish I could paint each one, but they vanish before I’ve so much as seen the pattern. And the people in the clothes? I lack the eyes to see them. Each face is characteristic — and forgotten as soon as it’s seen. A rounded profile; a glint of an earring; a toothy grin. That’s as far as I’ve gotten. I see the sunlight on a face and not the face.

But I’m learning. On my walk today, I saw whole tableaux. A woman in a colorfully speckled dress carried a child on her back. Only the little girl’s head was visible, and her hair was studded with colorful clips, extending the pattern on the dress. Two boys, five or six years old, were the best of friends, arms draped round each other’s shoulders. Three others played with a suitcase — one sitting inside, another pulling it like a stroller or a wheelbarrow. Then they started zipping it up; the little boy, grinning, fit almost entirely inside.

Little boy, I know this delight too. I also grew up huddled around a suitcase, waiting for the next journey to sweep me across the ocean. I also have this joy: to find a snug corner someplace you’re not meant to fit. A pillow fort, a tree branch, a clearing in a forest.

A suitcase. A small scene in a foreign land.

Between Scam and Symbol

Gorée Island’s “House of Slaves”

View from the “House of Slaves.”

Delightful little pastel homes, with bougainvilleas tucked into every corner, the sea sparkling at the ends of narrow, dappled streets. Inside one such delightful home, painted a cheerful pink: narrow, grey-walled cells, heavy with the memory of pain. Above the door of each separate cell, a label made of shreds of the word “family:” men to the right, women — left, children — in the middle. And in a tiny cubicle, shreds of “human being:” “recalcitrant prisoners.”

This is the story I would have liked to tell you about Senegal’s Gorée Island. I would have strolled, then paced, around this tiny (less than half a square kilometer) patch of land, shifting my gaze from the lovely, pastel surface of colonialism to its dark and bloody underbelly, both in full view here. I would have considered, on the one hand, the handful of Europeans in their flowery houses and, on the other, the millions of enslaved Africans said to have passed through this island. I would have felt uncomfortable and horrified and moved; you would have appreciated my intricate descriptions of subtle emotional shifts.

Two uncooperative factors stand in the way of that story: my emotions — and historical facts.

My feelings are more receptive to the joy bouncing off a patch of bougainvilleas than to the faint must of suffering which hangs around an empty cell — especially if that cell is labelled only in a foreign language. As to the facts: the number of slaves shipped out of Gorée Island is the subject of historical controversy and may have been as “low” as 300 per year. A tour guide at the so-called House of Slaves, with those cells labelled “recalcitrant prisoners,” might tell you that a total of a million enslaved people had waited to be shipped across the Atlantic from here. Historians’ estimate hovers around… zero.

Instead, then, let me tell you a story of politics, gullibility, and tourism. A story of the power — and failings — of human emotions. A story too complex to be captured in the single compelling image of a pastel-colored home.

The Door of No Return

As we entered the House of Slaves, I held in my mind the pieces of information I’d gathered about this place during the previous night’s cursory glance at the internet.

  • It was a holding place for slaves waiting to be shipped across the Atlantic.
  • There was some controversy about the exact numbers of people held captive here.
  • With a 4.5 star rating, Trip Advisor ranks it as the #1 thing to see in Dakar.
  • Most of the commenters on Trip Advisor were profoundly moved by the place, which brought the horrors of slavery to all-too-vivid life for them.

I wasn’t one of those people. My feelings failed me, and I found the House of Slaves… beautiful. And empty. The labelled cells were indistinguishable from countless dungeons I’d seen in British medieval castles. I understood that this was a terrible place, of course — but I couldn’t understand the visitors who were moved to tears by their visit.

If we’d done a bit more research, Ben and I would have known that the doorway towards the sea — a tiny blue rectangle flanked on the side by two imposing flights of stairs, through which we gleefully scrambled out onto the wall below — was called the “Door of No Return” and was supposed to be the gate through which slaves were made to embark on their tragic westward journeys. Instead, after climbing out the little door, Ben smiled approvingly at the breeze’s expert hair-tousling, while I leaned back a little over the sea to catch the sunlight on my face.

I’d read a couple blog posts about people’s experiences in Gorée, and everyone said they “made friends”… Everywhere you go here — starting with the ferry terminal — you’re pounced on by would-be tourguides.

I’m afraid we’re not friend-making types.

If we had been, we would have probably paid a guide to fill the cells with affecting stories for us. Instead, we tried deciphering the French signs in the single-room exhibition for a while, then headed back to the sunlit bougainvilleas.

The Door of No Return.

Siding with the “Slavery Deniers”

Gorée Island is listed on the UNESCO world heritage list. On the UNESCO website, we can read that “from the 15th to the 19th century, it was the largest slave-trading centre on the African coast.” The BBC and The New York Times have both claimed that millions of slaves had been held here. Celebrities like Pope John Paul II, Nelson Mandela, and multiple US presidents, as well as (according to Wikipedia) 200 000 visitors every year, have visited not only Gorée Island but also its House of Slaves. Judging by Trip Advisor reviews, most, like me, come to the island under the impression that Gorée really did play a major role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the House of Slaves really did house slaves waiting to be exported.

Other sources paint a completely different picture. The Telegraph quotes historian Ralph Austen:

There are literally no historians who believe the Slave House is what they’re claiming it to be, or that believe Goree was statistically significant in terms of the slave trade.

Philip Curtin’s statistical analysis of documentation of trans-Atlantic voyages suggests that no more than 300 slaves departed from Goree each year. Similar numbers appear to be backed up by the Du Bois Institute’s Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database (as reported and further backed up here).

When this data was publicized in a 1996 article in the French press, Senegalese historians were outraged. Here’s historian Mbaye Gueye:

It is true that the slave trade has never been among the preoccupations of European historians, but this was nothing less than an attempt to falsify the past. There are evidently still people who simply wish to absolve themselves of this past.

Mbaye Gueye claimed to have more than ad hominem attacks up his sleeve — he apparently found “original archives from the French port of Nantes that showed that between 1763 and 1775 alone one port had traded more than 103,000 slaves from Goree” (the quote is from the same NYT article.)

This is the one (initially) solid-looking piece of evidence I’ve been able to find for the Gorée-as-slave-trade-center theory — but even this crumbles under scrutiny. In a footnote in this article, we read that the numbers in the Nantes records were for trades brought in from all of West Africa. Gorée isn’t mentioned in them at all.¹

As far I’ve been able to verify, then, Gorée was hardly the slave-trading center that UNESCO makes it out to be. As to the so-called Slave House, it was:

  • in the area of the island populated by rich free people (and, sometimes, their domestic slaves),
  • facing out to a treacherous part of the coast that ships probably wouldn’t have departed from,
  • built after the zenith of the slave trade.

Not every horrific slave story is a true story.

The True Story

If the House of Slaves wasn’t a holding pen for America-bound slaves, what was it? The house, built around 1776, belonged to the Pépins, a family of rich merchants of mixed Afro-European descent.

The most famous member of the family, Anne Pépin, was the mistress of Senegal’s French governor Stanislas de Boufflers, who according to Wikipedia “attempted to mitigate the horrors of the slave trade.” Anne Pépin was one of the so-called “Signares:” African and Afro-European women who had formed relationship with powerful white male invaders, and who often worked as merchants and owned land and slaves.²

What should we think of the Signares? Were they feminist icons, black women who managed to wield considerable power in an era where that would have hardly seemed possible? Or femmes fatales who used their sex appeal to their advantage and didn’t shy away from the slave trade, buying and selling their own kinsmen? Were they the victims of the lust and power of male European invaders, who eloped with them only to leave them behind and sail off to Europe, often back to the wives they had left behind? Were they just making the best of an awful situation, using their influence to ensure better treatment of their partners’ domestic slaves — or were they heedless of the suffering they contributed to, driven by the pursuit of wealth and power?

The answer may well be: all of the above. The human soul is a complex place — but that doesn’t bring in tourists. Can you blame the people of Senegal for not broadcasting the story of these mixed-race slave-owning badass island ladies? Can you blame them for, instead, feeding visitors the thrillingly familiar story of easily condemnable attrocities hidden in the dungeons of a pastel town? After all, the House of Slaves is Senegal’s top tourist destination, and its historically inaccurate story has forty years of bestseller status speaking in its favor.

Anne Pépin and her family didn’t keep slaves waiting to be shipped across the Atlantic — those were held in a fortress on the other side of the island — but they probably did own so-called indigenous slaves: people kept on the island by force for domestic labor. (It was most likely indigenous slaves who built the Slave House and many other Gorée buildings.) This is another part of the Gorée story that isn’t often told: by the eighteenth century, over half of the island’s population consisted of indigenous slaves. The mistreatment these people endured was just slight enough for us to have erased it from our collective memory.

The “cells” of the House of Slaves, then, were probably the lodgings of indigenous slaves, whose lot, though certainly not enviable, didn’t feature the shackles now exhibited here.

And the Door of No Return? We don’t know for sure, but it may have been… a garbage dump for throwing waste into the sea. (Take this with a grain of salt; the reference is from the UK’s The Daily Mail, which isn’t exactly famous for stellar journalism…)

Where the Myth Came From… and Where It’s Headed

The whole story about the horrors of the House of Slaves seems to have originated with a single person: curator Boubacar Joseph Ndiaye. For forty years, right up to his death at 86, he led daily tours of the house, telling his gory and compelling tale to transfixed audiences.

During those forty years, the House of Slaves and its Door of No Return acquired a cult status. Members of the African diaspora would come here to come to terms with what their ancestors had lived through. (Those who come from the United States are especially unlikely to be retracing their ancestors’ footsteps; the slaves who did pass through Gorée were overwhelming shipped to Europe and South America.)

Since Ndiaye’s death, no one has been proclaiming the myth of Gorée quite so forcefully. More and more visitors are aware of the controversy surrounding the House of Slaves; it’s right there in the Wikipedia article. The Bradt Guide to Senegal cites both the Phil Curtin numbers and the alleged Nantes document, diplomatically concluding “The true numbers may never be known.” In other words: “we don’t want to anger anyone.”

A sign outside the door to the House of Slaves stamped “UNESCO” informs you that the site is “under renovation” to bring it up to 21st century museum standards. There’s no explanation of this mysterious phrase, no grand retraction of the House of Slave’s claim to fame — but the museum is slowly ceasing to be a memorial to the invented horrors of the building it’s housed in and turning into a monument to the very real horrors of the entire trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Rebranding the museum: this mural no longer graces the walls of the House of Slaves. (Source.)

Slowly but surely, Gorée is turning into a symbol. I wish UNESCO openly acknowledged that they’d made a mistake, rather than quietly filing away old signs — but at least the end destination is a noble one. I don’t want people to stop coming here. This tiny, remarkably preserved island is uniquely placed to play the role of an anchor for the imagination.

Ndiaye didn’t really invent the story of the House of Slaves; he simply relocated a true story to this tiny island. The shackles exhibited here weren’t used in this house — but they were certainly used during the horrific forced journey across the Atlantic so many had to endure. Gorée wasn’t the main location of the slave trade — there were many places like it, each with its trickle of atrocities.

In fact, there is a true “door of no return” west of the Atlantic: South Carolina’s Sullivan’s Island, the site of a checkpoint and quarantine house for 40% of the slaves shipped into British North America. Today, Sullivan’s Island is a wealthy beach resort town, with some of the highest real estate prices in the area.

There is a House of Slaves in Gorée for exactly the same reasons for which there isn’t one in Sullivan’s Island: political convenience and monetary gains.

You visit Sullivan’s Island to sunbathe — or to bask in the glory of the American victory which took place there in 1776. You visit Gorée to feel bad — about what you already know.

The next time I walk by a pastel home, I’ll remember to search for its bloody underbelly. It might be small, and complicated, and scarred in the strangest of patterns, but it will be there. After all, if this tiny island can’t hold its millions of slaves, they’ll have to spread out over the rest of the world.

I wish I had been less gullible, but I don’t regret visiting the beautiful, complicated island of Gorée.

[1] Here’s the whole footnote.

Following the I997 conference, articles in the N. Y Times and the newsletter of the U.S. West African Research Center in Dakar (WARA) indicated that Prof. Mbaye Gueye of Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar had found archival materials in Nantes that indicated a much larger Goree slave trade. Prof. Gueye showed the author a copy of the relevant document in June 1998; it is a summary of slaving voyages from 1763 to 1775, which add up to 294 ships carrying 103,135 slaves. The only destination indicated is “N. Gulinee” (Upper Guinea), and Gueye simply maintains that Goree, with its excellent harbor, served as a transhipment point for some of the ports in present-day Guinea and the Petite Cote of Senegal (south of Dakar), whose small size and sand bars made them unattractive destinations for ocean-going vessels. This claim is probably true, but the major slave trading outlets of this region were at St. Louis and the Gambia River and would not generally have required such services. (I am grateful to Martin Klein for help with this issue).

[2] The ship which took Obama to Gorée was called “La Signare.”

Iceland’s Ring Road: A Road Trip for Hikers

 

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The Ring Road (Route 1) is a 1330 km highway which loops around most of Iceland’s perimeter. Ben and I drove all the way around it this summer— and were entranced. Below, you’ll find our week-long itinerary — with star-ratings, travel tips, photos, and short descriptions. You can access the Google map of places we visited or considered visiting here.

If you’re planning a vacation to Iceland, this post is for you — especially if backpacking sounds a little too intense, but “great photo opportunity five minutes from the parking lot!” isn’t what you’re looking for either. 

Our points-of-interest map.

Highlights

Read this section if you just want the “best-of” list. Otherwise, skip to the complete itinerary below.

  • Fimmvörðuháls Trail. Hike next to a gazillion (=27) waterfalls, then through a lava field left by the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull explosion. National Geographic calls it one of the world’s 21 best hikes. (25 km 1–2 day hike; doing just a small part is worth it.)
  • The S3/S4 trail in Skaftafell National Park. Pass right above a giant glacier, climb a mountain with 360° panoramas (further glaciers, jagged rocks), descend down meadowy hills with view over the sea, end by waterfall with basalt columns. (16 km; day long hike.)
  • Jökulsárlón. Giant glacial lagoon with icebergs, seals, and a hundred shades of blue. (Not a hike; just the definition of sublimity.)
  • Stuðlagil Canyon. A natural cathedral of basalt columns, with a roaring river at the bottom. Hike through grassy meadows with only sheep for company, pass a gorgeous waterfall (basalt columns again), find your way down to the bottom of the canyon. (8 km (two-way) hike.)

The Itinerary

Day 1: The Golden Circle

Overall: This requires driving off the Ring Road. If you’re in a hurry and more of a hiker than an attraction-check-offer, you can skip this day; the only thing you might be sad about missing is Gullfoss.

Þingvellir National Park: Site of the (10th-18th century) Icelandic Parliament.
3.5 stars: Lots of historical value (e.g. you see the place where alleged witches were drowned), not that much perceptual/aesthetic value. Beautiful cliffs and river, but you’ll see much better ones later in the trip. Very crowded.

Strokkur Geysir: Active geyser. 
3.5 stars: Definite “yes” if you haven’t seen a geyser before. If you’ve been to Yellowstone, you might be underwhelmed.

Gullfoss: Giant two-tiered waterfall.
4.5 stars
: Roaring sublimity, big chance of rainbows. Viewpoints both above and below the falls. Worth braving the (significant) crowd.

Kerið Crater Lake
3 stars
: There’s an entrance fee and the lake is quite small. The colors are probably better earlier in the day; when we got there, the lake was in shadow. Worth it if you’re new to crater lakes.

Campsite: Hamragarðar. 
Amenities: Includes kitchen.
Bonus: The waterfall right above the campsite is an explorer’s heaven in miniature. There’s a little cave, a view of the fall from between two slabs of rock, and an exhilarating scramble (with chains) up to (near) the top of the fall — all doable in ~20 min total.

Day 2: Fimmvörðuháls Trail.

Seljalandsfoss: Waterfall you walk behind. 
4 stars: Worth walking behind; not worth getting up at sunrise.
Details
: The internet recommended going there at sunrise. This was weird, since in August you can’t see the sun from behind the fall. (Sunset might have been better.) Then again, the complete lack of people at sunrise allows you to really appreciate the roar of water from behind the fall.

Fimmvörðuháls Trail. Hike next to 25 or so waterfalls, then through a lava field left by the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull explosion. (25 km 1–2 day hike; we only did a few km.)
Details: Start by the imposing Skógafoss waterfall. I recommend coming up close to it, to appreciate the height — but only if you wear waterproof clothes! The trail goes up to the top of the fall, and continues by the side of the Skóga river and its myriad waterfalls. (Sometimes the trail splits and you get to choose whether to come up close to a fall or appreciate it from afar.) 
5 stars: We only did the waterfall part, which is indescribably beautiful. (Waterfall after waterfall in ultra-green landscape, the sea behind you, snowcapped Eyjafjallajökull to the side.) Our biggest regret after the trip was not doing the full hike — since it’s not a loop, this requires catching a bus at the end of the trail.

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Skógafoss waterfall. (Eve for scale.)
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Fimmvörðuháls Trail. (One of over 20 waterfalls.)

Dyrhólaey Lighthouse: Viewpoint with rock arch over the sea.
3 stars: After Fimmvörðuháls trail, this was underwhelming (and we wish we’d stayed longer at Fimmvörðuháls instead). The drive up there is steep, narrow, and a little scary. The view is great… but not really appreciable after a day with 20 waterfalls. Might be more worth it earlier in the summer, when you might spot puffins.

Campsite: Skaftafell Campground (two nights).
Bonus: Glorious view of Skaftafell’s mountains and glaciers, which turn pink during sunset.

Day 3: Skaftafell Glacier Hike

The S3/S4 trail in Skaftafell National Park. Pass right above a giant glacier, climb a mountain with 360° panoramas (further glaciers, jagged rocks), descend down meadowy hills with view over the sea, end by waterfall with basalt columns. (16 km loop; day long hike.)
Details: Take the S3 trail counterclockwise from the park visitor center. (Unless you prefer starting with meadows and ending with glaciers.) You’ll have the magnificent Skaftafellsjökull glacier to your right for ~5 km. Then, take the (excitingly strenuous) S4 trail up to where an unnamed path goes up Kristínartindar peak. I definitely recommend continuing up this path — it’s about a half hour of fairly arduous scrambling, but you won’t forget the view from the top (which includes two giant glaciers). Retrace your steps to the S4, then keep following the S4 until it rejoins the S3. Follow the S3 through soothing meadows, until you get to signs for Svartifoss waterfall. Follow these; from the incredible waterfall it’s just a short descent back to the campsite.
5 stars: Two giant glaciers, jagged rock formations, a peak to ascend, green meadows, ocean view, basalt-column waterfall… all in one hike just long enough to be pleasantly exhausting.

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View from Kristínartindar peak.

Day 4: Glacial Lagoons

Hnappavellir: Cliffs for outdoor climbing. (Iceland’s largest rock-climbing area.)
4 stars (1 star for non-climbers): This was our first time outdoor bouldering, so we’re not reliable judges. We had a lot of fun, but found the routes very challenging.

Fjallsárlón Glacial Lagoon
3 stars
: In any other context, this would be 5 stars — but this glacial lagoon pales in comparison with the bigger Jökulsárlón, which it borders on. And it doesn’t have seals.

Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon
5 stars:
Giant glacial lagoon with icebergs, seals, and a hundred shades of blue. Leave yourself plenty of time to take in the view! (It took up all of my attention, so it didn’t even matter that there were a lot of other tourists.)

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Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon

Camping: Eyjolfsstadir Campsite
5 stars: This was our favorite campsite (and the only one which stood out to us on the trip). Inexpensive (by Icelandic standards), nestled between two cliff/mountain ranges, with a really friendly owner. You drive right by the fjords to get there.
Bonus: Sveinsstekksfoss is an easily missed waterfall marked by an “Enter at your own risk” sign a few minutes’ drive from the campsite. The marvelous view of the fall has the fjords as background.

Day 5: Stuðlagil Canyon

Klifbrekkufossar: Waterfall with view over the fjords.
2 stars: It’s a 25 km drive away from the #1, and indistinguishable from countless more easily accessible ones. (E.g. Sveinsstekksfoss is more exciting.) We were misled by this site, which calls it “one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Iceland.”

Stuðlagil Canyon: 4 km (one-way) hike to basalt-column canyon with river at the bottom. 
5 stars: You’ll find the sublimest part of the canyon at the end of a 4 km hike through meadows, with a basalt-column waterfall to rival Svartifoss halfway along the way. It’s possible to descend almost to the canyon floor, which I highly recommend. Few experiences compare to visiting this natural cathedral, with its geometric basalt columns, and the water roaring right next to you. The spot is almost entirely unknown to tourists. It also has a fascinating history: most of the canyon had actually been underwater until a dam built around 2006 affected the sources of the river! The hike itself might feel a little monotonous, but in the right mindset it’s completely idyllic (meadows! sheep! no other people!)
Warning #1: Don’t let Google maps guide you to Stuðlagil — that will take you to the wrong side of the river. Instead, turn off four kilometers earlier and follow the hiking instructions found here.
Warning #2: Finding the safe path to the canyon floor is tricky; descending down the safe path is not particularly tricky. Do not try scrambling down rocks to get to the bottom — there’s a safer way down, you just need to keep looking for it. (If you see a micro-waterfall in an area with reddish stones, you’re following the right path.)

Image for post
Stuðlagil Canyon

Goðafoss: ultra-wide waterfall.
5 stars: I was so tired that I didn’t even want to stop here, I’d already seen a million waterfalls, and I still managed to be impressed! (We were so exhausted from Stuðlagil that for once we were glad that the parking lot was right by the falls.)

Camping: Camping Tjaldstæďi
4 stars: Had a kitchen with a goat (!) that vacuumed the floor and accepted pettings. Buildings with borderline cute/kitsch thatched roofs.

Day 6: Lake Mývatn

The area around Lake Mývatn is full of post-volcanic attractions. There’s a lava field (Dimmuborgir), a volcanic crater (Mt Hverfjall), steam vents, and more. All the attractions are close together and have parking lots, so you can drive between them or, as we did, string them together into one of the hikes here.

Dimmuborgir — Hverfjall — Grjótagjá Hike
4 stars: All the attractions are wonderful, but quite crowded. 
Tip: There are several routes through the Dimmuborgir lava formations. The one marked “dangerous” is the only one worth doing if you’re in decent shape — it’s unpaved and less crowded. No dangers in sight. The estimated hiking time they give you for this is also way too high.

Day 7: Drive back and Reykjavik

The northwestern part of the Ring Road has relatively few attractions, so we decided to just drive back to Reykjavik on the last day, stopping only for a picnic and short stroll by a random river along the way. [Note that the northwest part of Iceland has plenty of attractions that aren’t along the #1; we left those for another trip.] If you prefer leaving best for last, you might consider going around the #1 clockwise instead.

When we got back to Reykjavik, we felt pretty done with tourism, so we decided to go indoor rock climbing instead.

Klifurhúsið: Bouldering gym in Reykjavik
4 stars: Typical bouldering fun! Around $13 entrance fee — by Iceland standards, this is really good value for money.

Practicalities

Ready to pack your bags? Here are some tips before you do.

Getting there: Iceland is the perfect place for a stopover on a flight between Europe and North America. Icelandair and WOW Air both let you stay in the country for a week (sometimes longer) between two legs of your flight without paying extra — but in my case, booking a separate Warsaw-Reykjavik flight with Wizz Air and Reykjavik-Boston with WOW Air turned out to be the cheapest option. So look around!

Getting around: All of the places on our itinerary were accessible by a two-wheel-drive vehicle — so you can still see amazing places if you rent the cheapest possible car.

Weather: Prepare for rain, wind, and cold temperatures, even in the summer.

  • Wind-management: Use your car to shield your tent from the wind at night. Also, a bandana doubles as a muffler for the howling and a face mask for the midnight sun.

Saving money: Iceland is fiendishly expensive. In order to not go completely broke, try:

  • Camping. Campsites are “only” about $20/person (as a psychological trick, we pretended that we were paying for a hotel room) — I’m not sure I want to know how much staying in a hotel room would have been. It’s legal — and free — to camp anywhere that isn’t a national park (or, presumably, someone’s backyard), so if you’re braver than us, you could try that.
  • Bringing your own food. We brought peanut butter and tortillas for lunch (this is a surprisingly good hiking meal — just bring a lot of peanut butter), dry dinner ingredients (red lentils, freeze-dried vegetables, couscous, powdered sauce) and a camping stove, oatmeal for breakfast (adding nuts/sugar/dried fruits recommended) and snacks.
  • Getting VAT refund forms for large expenses. We didn’t realize you have to ask for a special document along with your purchase to get a refund at the airport. (This only works for purchases over 6000 ISK (~$60).)
  • Using the bathrooms in gift shops. Though it’s not a lot of money in the grand scheme of things, paying $2 to use the bathroom is a little absurd. At a lot of tourist attractions, the gift stores will have free bathrooms.
  • Bringing your own data/phone plan. If you’re traveling from within the EU/EEA, your cellular plan will work in Iceland at your country’s rate.

It’s Okay Not to Like Modern Art

It’s Okay Not to Like Modern Art

I love art. Monet’s Water Lilies make my heart beat faster, my insides somersault, and my mind swirl with words and colors. Few experiences compare.

I don’t love the things that get exhibited in contemporary art galleries. If you prefer: I don’t love contemporary art. It makes me feel empty and bored, sometimes a little annoyed, at best slightly amused.

I’m far from alone in my preferences; among amateurs, they’re the rule rather than the exception. Like many people, I love color, beauty, representational illusion, emotional expression, painterly texture — and these are things contemporary art doesn’t typically give its viewers. Modern artists are just interested in very different things than I am.

I love one of these things.
I love one of these things.

By itself, this state of affairs would hardly be worth mentioning. I have my preferences; the art world has its. I would be happy to leave it at that — if it weren’t for two claims fans of the contemporary insist on repeating.

(1) A dislike of modern art is a symptom of insufficient education. Given enough art-historical and philosophical background, anyone should appreciate modern art. Furthermore, such background is worth acquiring.

(2) Modern art is preferable to representational painting in some objective sense: modern art is serious and cutting-edge; representational painting is shallow and outmoded. It’s fine to create and appreciate art which is merely beautiful, but in this day and age we ought to aim for something more.

These are the claims I’d like to question in this post. The first section tackles modern art directly; the second discusses the features of representational painting which allegedly make it inferior to modern art. The final section compares the two varieties of art.

My aims are relatively modest. I’ll argue that going to contemporary art galleries simply isn’t worth my effort. Acquiring the historical and philosophical background necessary to begin to appreciate contemporary art is a huge time investment — and even after this investment, I value the appreciative experiences I end up with much less than I value the experiences I have of, say, Monet. Furthermore, the claim that art has somehow “progressed” beyond representation, or that contemporary art is more relevant to our times than, say, representational painting, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

I’m not claiming that there’s nothing valuable in contemporary art for you. In fact, I know that there are artworks in contemporary galleries that even I like. I’m just arguing for a statistical claim: for me, the worthwhile artworks are so few and far between that going to a MoMA or a MoCA typically just isn’t worth my time.

I. “No, Thank You” to the Modern

The Target

Perhaps the most baffling variety of modern art is so-called conceptual art: art in which the artwork is, supposedly, an idea rather than a thing.¹ These days, this sort of art occupies a large chunk of museum space, and it will occupy a proportionally large chunk of this post. I won’t attempt a definition, but here are some common features of conceptual art:

  • the use of found objects (“readymades”)
  • only a minor (if any) use of traditional media like painting or sculpture
  • features which make the question “what/where is the artwork?” hard to answer: including the gallery space as part of the work, performative aspects, audience participation, invisible elements, etc.
  • reliance on a background aesthetic theory or references to art history/philosophy.

Many who reject conceptual art would also reject abstract expressionism, or even cubism; for the most part, I wouldn’t.²

Difficulties with Difficulty

I can’t shoot down a whole artistic practice without giving concrete examples; otherwise, you’ll rightly suspect me of strawmanning. But here I encounter a problem: when I visit a modern gallery, I find most of the exhibits so incomprehensible that (a) I have nothing to say about them and (b) I immediately forget about them. Among my reactions to modern art, mute bewilderment is the norm.

To criticize a work is already to grant that there’s something there to be talked about. The examples I’ll discuss are therefore only the interpretable tip of the bewildering iceberg. Here’s a piece of that iceberg; I can only point to it in frustration. The pointing is part of the argument; without it this post would paint a picture of modern art that is altogether too rosy.

With that in mind, here’s an example. Martin Creed’s Work № 227: The Lights Going On and Off is an empty gallery room in which the lights go on and off (every five seconds). It won the 2001 Turner Prize.

I love one of these things.

Here’s what the Tate’s communications curator had to say about the work.

Creed is a kind of very pure extreme kind of artist. The fact that many people find his work so baffling indicates that he’s working on the edge.

Bafflement is a sign of difficulty — right? And difficulty is a good thing — right?

Here’s a case where difficulty really is an admirable thing. We admire Einstein because he not only understood the theory of relativity, but came up with it himself. The latter is more difficult; Einstein had to put in more effort into coming up with his theory than he would have had to put into understanding it, if someone else had come up with it earlier. Furthermore, Einstein’s theory tells us how the physical world works. Learning it is not just difficulty for difficulty’s sake.

The case of modern art is different — often, the hard work lies entirely on the side of the viewer. We have to contort our mind into strange shapes to get anywhere near a state we might recognize as appreciation. The work is difficult in the sense of being difficult to appreciate — but it isn’t necessarily difficult to create. (It’s also often not difficult to understand, in the sense that there isn’t much there to be understood.) The artist gives us an instruction (“appreciate this!”), but he doesn’t need to know how to follow it. Just listen to what Creed has to say about his own work — does this sound like the sort of deep appreciation we expect from viewers?

If I can make something without adding any objects I feel more comfortable. It’s like, if I can’t decide whether to have the lights on or off then I have them both on and off and I feel better about it.

The art world makes a virtue of things that have no independent value. Its proponents treat mere difficulty as if it were a virtue — as if steeper mountains were better, independently of the views. As if standing on one leg were better than standing on two, simply because it’s harder. I suspect that modern art’s difficulty, rather than being a reason to call this art “good,” is caused by its badness. It’s extremely hard to learn to like unlikeable things — but that’s not to those things’ credit.

Modern art is only difficult in the sense in which a rebellious teenager is difficult.

A Good Insult Isn’t a Good Thing

I once heard an art historian say, in response to a student’s complaint that he didn’t like an artwork: “How do you know you’re supposed to like it? What if the artist wasn’t trying to please you? What if his aim was to annoy you?”

What if, indeed. The rhetorical question was posed as if it settled the matter — which it certainly doesn’t. If the artist’s aim was to annoy me, and he succeeds in that aim, I can rightly ask: “what’d you do that for?!” If I go to a massage therapist, and instead of giving me a massage, he kicks me, telling me that his intention was to hurt rather than massage me doesn’t help his case. You don’t get brownie points simply for achieving your aims.

Of course, annoying your audience — or just making it uncomfortable — is often done in the service of grander aims. We’re shown uncomfortable truths, often moral or political ones. This is a fine aim, except (1) modern art, with its tiny, highbrow audience, and amenability to multiple, inconsistent interpretations, is a highly ineffective tool for changing the world, (2) the aim comes with an ascetic suspicion of pleasure that I think is deeply misguided. I get the sentiment behind “no poetry after Auschwitz,” but was I really born too late for art that is beautiful… or simply kind to its audience? Is mourning till the end of time really the best response to tragedies? Of course we shouldn’t get complacent, but making art that brings joy to people is, other things equal, still a finer thing than art which merely scandalizes them.

This Is a Bad Artwork

A hundred years ago, Marcel Duchamp submitted a store-bought urinal, under a pseudonym, to the Society of Independent Artists (of which he was a board member!) The Society had agreed to exhibit any artwork by a fee-paying artist, but refused to exhibit “Fountain.” (It wasn’t an artwork, so they were within their rights.) I refer the reader to Wikipedia for details on how the story evolved from there (including a discussion of the intriguing possibility that “Fountain” was in fact thought up not by Duchamp, but by a female artist).

What was Duchamp’s intention in submitting “Fountain”? On one interpretation, he was criticizing the romantic idea of the artist as sovereign creator of transcendent value. The artist was just a chooser among things, and there was no difference in kind between a urinal and a painting. Art was bankrupt; we should all go home.

If this had been Duchamp’s aim, he failed to achieve it — spectacularly. In “Fountain’s” aftermath, the artist became a magician transforming everything he touched — even a urinal — into gold. Art galleries were given the power to — with the appropriate incantations about the death of art, in the appropriate jargon of the initiated — transmute bread into flesh and wine into blood.

I love one of these things.

To understand a little better how this could have happened, imagine a gallery room with a neon sign saying “THIS IS A BAD ARTWORK.” What would you make of such a work? Well, it’s just a freaking neon sign. It’s pretty bad, right?

Aha! But that’s precisely what the sign says. How witty! What a good artwork!

I hope this little neon sign illuminates the frustrating features of the works of Duchamp, Creed, and others like them. The artworks, among other things, draw attention to their unspectacular nature. They say something close to “this is bad art.” But then if you use those very words to criticize them, you’re just agreeing with them, adding fuel to their “greatness.”

Self-critical works immediately transmute criticism into praise. But they don’t stop there. “What a good work!” is an unstable conclusion too: if our neon sign is a good artwork, then its initial wittiness is undercut. Now we have a good artwork saying of itself that it’s bad—which means that it’s either lying, or mistaken.

The art world stops at “it’s a good work,” but this is an unstable conclusion which depends on the inferential cycle starting with “it’s a bad artwork.” Perhaps the difference between fans of the contemporary and me is that for them, oscillating between verdicts is itself a positive aesthetic experience — whereas for me, it’s a cheap self-referential trick.

Unmasking Is Impossible

Last year, as a prank, two teenagers placed a pair of glasses on the floor of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Almost immediately, people began photographing the glasses. The teenagers gleefully tweeted about their unmasking of modern art. In response, the SFMOMA welcomed them into the art world, tweeting “Do we have a Marcel Duchamp in our midst?”

I love one of these things.

The rules of the game are such that unmasking is impossible. The teenagers wanted to take something that clearly wasn’t art and show that museum-goers wouldn’t know the difference between this and “modern art.” But to succeed in this project means to turn a lowly item into something that makes a statement about the bankruptcy of art — which is to say, to change it from a lowly item into… modern art.

And this, of course, undermines the message. If the glasses are art, then gallery-goers weren’t mistaken at all, and the art world can go on just as it has before, applauding the brilliant self-criticism of a pair of glasses.

Duchamp said “we should all go home.” For a hundred years, the art world has been standing in the gallery, applauding this statement.

Concepts Don’t Live in Galleries

I once went to the Warsaw contemporary art gallery, only to find, in one of its rooms, a puddle in a glass container. The label informed me that this had been an ice sculpture, left to the unpredictable summer temperatures as a meditation on impermanence. There had been a heatwave, and the sculpture barely lasted a few hours.

The work achieved its aim, I guess — but looking at a puddle wasn’t worth the hour-long train ride into Warsaw. (To counter that since, after all these years, I still remember this annoying experience, the art must have been good, is to, once again, change the rules of the game so that badness becomes goodness.)

If the artwork really is the idea, then, reading gallery catalogs may be worthwhile, but going to the galleries themselves is not. Furthermore, when — as is often the case — the idea involves a commentary on art itself, it really isn’t worth the time of someone who isn’t a fan of the art world to begin with. If the idea embodied in Duchamp’s “Fountain” is that art is dead, then the ideal viewer is one so convinced of the message that she doesn’t bother coming to the gallery.

All Great Nonsense Was Misunderstood in Its Day

“Contemporary art is just too young to be fairly evaluated,” apologists sometimes explain. “It’s no wonder we don’t appreciate the greatness of contemporary art; all great art was misunderstood in its day.”

Everything about this argument is wrong.

The point that this is at most a reason to remain agnostic about the goodness of modern art, not a reason to call it great (since even if all great art is misunderstood, not all misunderstood art is great), is almost too obvious to be worth stating. But it’s worse than this — all the presuppositions of this argument are simply false. Much great art wasn’t misunderstood in its day — take Raphael or Rubens, for instance. And the great art that was misunderstood was misunderstood by institutions like the French Academy and by the rich people who bought art. Contemporary art isn’t even misunderstood in this sense. The scribbles that fetch exorbitant prices on the art market aren’t the work of starving geniuses. Modern art is over- rather than undervalued. Finally, contemporary art isn’t young — Duchamp’s “Fountain” is 100 years old, and we philistines still don’t get it. How much longer are we supposed to wait?

I love one of these things.

Now You See It, Now You Don’t

Let’s return to The Lights Going On and Off. I confess that while writing this post, my judgment of this work has flickered between “worthless” and “cool.” Here are some cool things the work does:

  • draws your attention to features of galleries which are usually in the perceptual background: the color of the walls, the shape of the room, the lighting
  • invites you to pay attention to similarly overlooked features of your everyday environment
  • refers to other works which have done something similar, like Cage’s 4’33”
  • flickers in an out of being really simple and really complicated, being just a room with lights and an artwork with complex meaning
  • brings to mind antonym pairings — being and nothingness, good and bad (art), exuberance and depression, understanding and bewilderment, meaning and meaninglessness, simplicity and complexity — and abrupt shifts between one and the other
  • asks about itself: which side of these boundaries do I lie on?

That’s a lot of cool features for a light switch in an empty room! But it’s not enough to rehabilitate conceptual art for me.

First, none of these features are reasons to go and see the work in person. I might try paying more attention to the way my environment shapes my perceptions, but I don’t have to travel to a gallery to do that. (And if I were seeing Creed’s work for the first time, I would probably be too angry to do what it asks of me and focus on the aesthetic features of the environment.)

Second, the work is still just a room with lights going on and off. The above “features” are just my interpretations — the coolness lies in the story I tell. You can write a great poem about lights going on and off in a room. But that doesn’t make the room great art—it makes you a poet.

As to self-reference, and reference to other works — they get tiresome. I wrote an undergraduate thesis on the liar paradox, so I really get the appeal — but there’s only so many times you can go through a paradoxical loop in your head without wanting to look at some deliciously textured paint.

Let’s turn off the lights and softly close the door.

II. “Yes, Please” to the Old-fashioned

Nothing Mere About Flowers

I overheard the following conversation at a nondescript Oxford reception.

“Why do you have to do all that modern art stuff? What’s wrong with just painting flowers?” a student at the Ruskin School of Art was asked. She responded: “Maybe in Van Gogh’s time, it was fine to just paint sunflowers, but today’s art has to do something more, make itself relevant. What could a painting of mere sunflowers have to tell us about the pressing concerns of critical discourse, politics, philosophy, morality?”

I can still hear the tone of confident derision in which she said “sunflowers.” How arrogant to be this certain — at twenty — that you know better than Van Gogh!

I love one of these things.

This student apparently believed that Van Gogh lived in an innocent age in which the simple pleasures of sunflower painting were still permitted—but we have learned better. But consider this bit of (oversimplified) art history. The French Academy, which existed between the 17th and 19th centuries, was an institution controlling which French artworks got to be exhibited (and what artistic training looked like, which artists got prestigious awards, etc.). One of the dogmas upheld by the Academy was the “hierarchy of the genres:” “heroic” depictions of historical and religious scenes were deemed superior to representations of humble still lifes. In fact, still life painting occupied the very bottom of the hierarchy. It wasn’t until Impressionism’s rebellion against the Academy that the hierarchy was overturned and still-life paintings were (briefly) treated as full-fledged, serious artworks.

The art favored by the French Academy was heroic, pompous, political, and needed to be decoded with the aid of textbooks. Sound familiar? At the same time, still lifes flourished on its outskirts, and found an enthusiastic market of non-experts wishing to decorate their homes. In my humble opinion, these outskirts are where French art’s true masterpieces, like Chardin’s The Ray, were created — and, perhaps, where our times’ masterpieces reside too.

I love one of these things.

Van Gogh did live during a special time — the extremely short period of art history during which landscape and still-life painting were at the center of the art world’s attention. (Or, perhaps, the extremely short period of art history during which there were two alternative art worlds.) But it was not a time during which there were somehow fewer philosophical, political, or moral concerns for artists to grapple with. More often than not, though, the artists who grappled with these things were forgotten; the still lifes have stayed with us.

What could be more universal than sunflowers? Van Gogh’s mere sunflowers — made of color, texture, emotion, mortality — will stay relevant when all the world’s most sophisticated art fades into obscurity.

Nothing Mere About Beauty

The admirable Youtube show “The Art Assignment” would have converted me to modern art if anything could have; it certainly reversed some of my judgments. In one episode, its host, Sarah Urist Green, answers a viewer’s question. “Can something beautiful be considered art if it doesn’t provoke thought or reflection?” She responds:

Art can make you marvel at its beauty, art can make you uncomfortable, art can make you think. Some art’s function is to make you appreciate its beauty, [but] personally, I like art that does something more.

Urist Green is being slippery here. If beauty and provoking thought are both valuable, then, of course, beauty plus thought is better than just beauty. It’s tautologously true that “something more” is more than “something less.”

But if this is all Urist Green means by “something more,” I can use her argument to make my own point: “Some art’s function is to make you uncomfortable or make you think, but personally, I like art that does something more: art that is also beautiful.” (In fact, this is one of the main points I’m making in this post.)

I think Urist Green would be unhappy to grant me my symmetric argument. There’s more behind her “something more” than a tautology. She’s insinuating a value judgment: it’s not just that beauty plus thought is better than beauty, but thought by itself is better than beauty. Beauty without thought is mere beauty; thought without beauty is thought, period — or perhaps: bravely ascetic thought.

Modern art’s distrust of beauty has many sources, which I can’t hope to untangle here. Suffice it to say that, to me, none of these sources amount to a compelling reason for such distrust. (An art historian once told me that beauty is “irrelevant.” She didn’t care to specify — irrelevant to what?)

To me, there’s nothing “mere” about beauty. Monet’s “Water lilies” come as close as any paintings to aiming at being “merely” beautiful. There are subsidiary aims, of course: capturing a light effect, an instant, the interplay of flower and reflection; giving expression to something spiritual or transcendent; exploring color relationships and textures; teetering on the edge between surface and depth, between representation and abstraction. But none of these amount to “provoking thought and reflection” of the sort modern art prizes. Monet has nothing to tell us about politics or morality, and he’s certainly not “problematizing” the concept of art.

I love one of these things.

I spent an exquisite half hour with the “Water lilies” at the New York MoMA. At first, I was disappointed — the paintings were too familiar, too similar to their reproductions. But I stayed with them, and they grew richer and richer. They coalesced when seen from the far corner of the gallery, engulfed me when I came closer, offered something new and just barely comprehensible — or barely incomprehensible, I couldn’t really tell — with every glance. None of this was “thought;” all of it was supremely valuable.

While I gasped at Monet, other visitors came and went. Some said “Too much pastel; not sophisticated enough.” Others: “Ooh, look at the pastel colors! I’d like this in my living room.” They disagreed, but they were seeing — skating across — essentially the same surface. None of them plunged in.

When people call beauty “mere,” they’re seeing only the pastel surface. They think that pursuing “mere beauty” would lead artists to become Thomas Kinkade — rather than Claude Monet.

Modern art has simply never given me the depths that Monet has.

I love one of these things.

III. The Art Worlds Meet

For a long time, I was dissatisfied with my responses. If modern art grew out of my very favorite late nineteenth-century art, there had to be something to it, some family resemblance which I was missing between Duchamp’s “Fountain” and Monet’s “Water lilies.”

In this section, I bring the discussions of conceptual and representational art together, and conclude my long and fruitless search for resemblance.

Hunger Artists

Franz Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist” is a short story about an artist who specializes in professional fasting. He achieves great renown by fasting for forty days straight — but his agent advises him that after forty days, his audience’s attention would wane. This is a source of great discontent for the Hunger Artist, since it prevents him from achieving the heights of artistic perfection he dreams of. Eventually, professional fasting falls out of fashion, and to sustain himself, the artist joins a circus, where he is free to fast for as long as he likes. He has the artistic freedom he had craved — but he lacks fame and attention, and he withers.

In his brave and provocative article “Why Artists Starve,” the philosopher Kevin Melchionne argues that Kafka’s story explains why contemporary artists continue to create such (in Melchionne’s own words) awful art. Briefly put, artists are attention seekers, and the artworld is a machine for creating status and attention.

I love one of these things.

Last year, I attended the MoMA’s glorious exhibition of Degas’s monotypes. Nudes emerging from half-lit, textured spaces, the glow of lamplight and fireplaces, the curves of bathtubs and sofas combined to put me into a state of dizzy, tingling intoxication.

I love one of these things.

After I feasted on Degas to overfulness, I wandered through the MoMA’s 1960s gallery. Tingling subsided and turned to numbness. Only one work caught my attention: Dieter Roth’s “Literature Sausage,” a sausage-shaped object made according to time-worn recipes, with a sole replacement: ground books instead of ground meat. I chuckled at that.

At the end of Kafka’s story, the Hunger Artist starves to death. With his dying breath, he explains the true reason for his fasting: “because I couldn’t find the food I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else.”

Melchionne dismisses the importance of this revelation; he thinks the Hunger Artist is deceiving himself, and attention-seeking remains his true motivation. I’m not so sure. If Dieter Roth had really tasted what I tasted in Degas, could he have kept grinding out art which insists that all art is only ground-up words? Could he have confined himself to substituting juicy sensations for dry discourse, euphoria for a chuckle?

I find it hard to believe that someone could love Degas the way I do and then renounce beauty, sensuality, tastiness… for ground up books. I suspect that the conceptual artist — the hunger artist — is a monk devoted to a celibate lifestyle simply because he has never fallen in love.

Let Hunger Artists patiently chew their discourses; I prefer food.

But Is It Art?

Duchamp once called painting “olfactory masturbation.” (“Olfactory” is supposed to be a reference to the smell of turpentine.) This inane insult is based on three blatantly false (if venerable) assumptions: (1) that there’s something wrong with masturbation, (2) that smell and touch are primitive senses, unworthy of attention, (3) that the intellect can be separated from the senses and is superior to them.

The Platonist (3) — and the anxiety to distinguish art from “mere” craft — lurks behind much modern art. Well, I prefer craft to empty thought.

Is conceptual art “art”? You’d be a fool to say “no.” Modern art galleries are called “art galleries,” and furthermore the work they exhibit engages in conversation with art history in the traditional sense.

It’s a foregone conclusion, then, that conceptual art is art. But it’s still up for debate whether it’s the art — whether what gets exhibited in galleries really is modern art, in the sense of being the best, or the most representative, or the most interesting art of our times. Who’s to say that the really great art of our times isn’t hanging in a basement or on a cafe wall somewhere, too “old-fashioned” to be appreciated?

Conceptual art didn’t grow out of impressionism; it grew against it. Painting, even representational painting, didn’t die with Duchamp; Monet continued painting water lilies for 10 years after the “Fountain” fiasco, and there are representational painters all over the globe to this day.

In the 19th century, the French Academy controlled what art got to count as good. Impressionism was a revolution which briefly gave artists some degree of freedom. We’re taught that the bewildering array of styles — the “anything goes” attitude of postmodernism — which came after was an expression of this freedom. I think, instead, that it was an expression of imprisonment. Not anything goes — still lifes and landscapes are, once again, forbidden.

The art world has been dancing at art’s funeral pyre for 100 years. But this is its own funeral — not painting’s, and not beauty’s. Beauty has been problematized, interrogated, critiqued, and beaten over the head with every ugly, pretentious cousin of a perfectly ordinary word, and so it fled the art world.

But beauty isn’t dead. It’s safe and sound in its proper home: the world of the art lover.

[1] For the purposes of this post, “modern” or “contemporary” art is just the sort of thing you’re likely to find in a MoMA or MoCA. While “modern” has a technical art-historical meaning, here I use it interchangeably with “contemporary.”
[2] I would group scribbles — like Cy Twombly’s — with conceptual art, especially since they often form parts of installations, but I can imagine a future in which I like Cy Twombly, but not one in which I like Duchamp.

Rik Wouters: The Painter of Love

Two paintings. One — rough rainbows, jagged angularity, empty textured patches. The other — soft rounded glow, smattering of light, pearly overflowing haze. An etching table, some mushrooms. Between them — an unmistakable, unexplainable thread of kinship. In front of them — me, heart racing.

It was supposed to be just another stopover. I might have easily gone to see Magritte instead, but I hesitantly opted for the unknown and the temporary. It was meant to be a little excursion to the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium; just passing the time on the outskirts of the real adventure: a week in Morocco.

Morocco pales in comparison.

Rik Wouters, this painter I’d never heard of before, followed me all the way to magical Marrakesh. His life and paintings kept me up at night for the entire trip.


What was it about Wouters? Many of his paintings are seemingly unfinished, as if he just stopped as soon as he got bored. This might sound like a weakness. In fact, it means the complete banishment of boredom from the canvas. It means achieving one of the alleged aims of impressionism — “capturing the moment” — like no impressionist ever had. It means staying true to the essences of things, even if these turn out to be no more than a smudge of paint. Just look at the shoe below!

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Others of his works are filled to the brim with paint. Filled even to overflowing — I wasn’t the only person to audibly exhale in front “Apples and artificial flowers B.” So gloriously too much.

Wouters loved Cézanne, and the kinship between their work is clear — but their paintings have different personalities. Where Cézanne is meticulous, Wouters is fervent.

Wouters is all intensity.

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Apples and artificial flowers B (“Homage to Cézanne”), 1913.

A woman’s face recurred in these paintings over and over. With romantic naivety, I found myself thinking “please let it be his wife!”

It was. Nel Wouters appears in her husband’s works again and again and again. Sleeping, waking up, ironing, looking out the window, ill with tears in her eyes, dancing, hugging herself tight — in all the motley instants which held her husband’s gaze.

And reading. “Woman reading” is warmer than any painting I’d ever seen. Nel is perfectly self-contained, wrapped in her own shoulders mirroring the curve of her engrossing book. I come closer, scrutinize her face, and am startled, almost upset to find that it reveals nothing more. There is only the instant.

In “Woman reading,” Wouters painted love itself. I can’t put it any other way.

Woman reading (1913).

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The salon Giroux, 1911. (Furniture’s atmosphere.)

As I look at yet another portrait of Nel, I have an epiphany. Love is the missing link, the glue which holds all of Wouters’s paintings together. In the empty canvases and in the overfull ones, the soft and the jagged — everything is there because it’s loved. Everything is seen with the lover’s intoxicated eyes. Not just Nel, but the mushrooms, the furniture, the light. And, of course, the paint.

Wouters painted not so much the impression of things as their atmosphere. In one work, he depicts only the feeling, the glow of furniture in a living room. He painted domestic life as it is — suffused with meaning.


I stand in front of “Domestic cares” — a monumental sculpture of Nel, strikingly intimate despite its grandeur, which Wouters sculpted in his basement in 1913–14 — listening to the audioguide. The accumulation of portraits of Nel in the room, witnesses to love, becomes almost unbearably moving. The larger-than-life “Domestic cares” in front of the miniature “Woman reading.” In their opposite ways, each doing exactly the same thing —giving off the same love.

The audioguide informs me that “Domestic cares” was supposed to represent the overcoming of financial hardship. Rik and Nel had been living in poverty for years, but this was the turning point after which everything would get better.

This was the turning point after which the war started. The days of domestic cares, the audioguide tells us, had been their happy days.

I don’t quite know what’s coming— but behind my eyes, tears are getting ready.

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Domestic Cares

The last room cut me with the abruptness of death. One minute —love’s kaleidoscope. The next — a handful of dark paintings, “Self-portrait with an eyepatch” — and the exit door.

Wouters was conscripted in 1914. He couldn’t bear the horrors of war. On top of that, he started suffering from horrible headaches. It soon turned out that he had sinus cancer. He had to have several operations, and in 1915 he lost his eye and part of his jaw. He died in 1916.

He was 33. Nel was 27.

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Self-portrait with black eye patch, 1915.

I can’t do justice to what Wouters’s paintings did to me. I’d hit the highest notes of praise too soon, in posts about puny Munch and Matisse, and I ran out of notes for Wouters. I’d lied about Munch — it turns out that was nothing like seeing a painter for the first time. With Wouters, there was no bewilderment — just instant connection.

Why hadn’t I heard of Wouters before? Maybe universal renown is too much to ask for a painter who spoke to me on such a personal level. After all, he’s famous enough in Belgium, and not many are privileged to be remembered outside of their homeland.

Still, I think art history has been unfair to Wouters. He puts more famous painters to shame. Why did Matisse have to buy all those antiques, if there is so much to shimmer in Wouters’s humble interiors? Just look at Wouters’s paintings of Nel — did Gaugin really have to leave his wife and kids? What good are Munch’s tormented mirages when there is so much color in a plate of mushrooms?

I like those famous guys — but Wouters is mine like they never will be.

As critics emphasize, Wouters’s work is touchingly simple. But these words have to be carefully cleaned of misguided associations to be recognized for what they are: the highest possible praise.

It’s a simplicity that doesn’t give up anything that matters. A refusal to give the viewer empty riddles, to show off your personality, to be part of a movement. An homage to the beauty ordinary people and things exhibit not despite their ordinariness — but because of it. An exuberance rather than a calm contemplation. A cutting open of the smallest things to reveal the jewels inside. A fervent polishing of surfaces till they shimmer from all angles — with their own natural light.

It’s a simplicity that manages to paint love itself, over and over. Without a trace of boredom or sentimentality — only earnestness.

Simple, but not easy — like all great art.


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Stopover at the Munchmuseet

Stopover at the Munchmuseet

From the pines’ perspective?

The paintings were baffling. The fact that they were also exactly right made the bafflement itself baffling. I fell immediately in love — everyone else seemed to, too—but had no idea what to do with this love.

It was obvious that these forest scenes presented inner vistas (though they were probably also literal landscapes.) But what were my grounds for this certainty? The anthropomorphic tree trunks, writhing, embracing, slouching, bending over to whisper, propping each other up — sure, but somehow that wasn’t enough.

What explained my sense that this snowscene was painted from the pines’ perspective — that the trees frame the vista the way I might frame a question to myself? (Is the tree closest to us leaning into the painted space to see better?)

From the pines’ perspective?

Why couldn’t I tear my gaze away from the scene below — one you might call a spectacular failure of realism? The trunks seem to be floating, shadowless, with inept green horizontals for foliage. Reading this foliage as the edge of a swamp, I thought for a while that some of the trees were reflections in water.

That’s how I felt about so many of the paintings: I loved them, but I couldn’t tell which way was up.

From the pines’ perspective?

The works were sparkling with emotional charge — but I didn’t even know if this charge was positive or negative. And it was anything but neutral. That tree stump in the foreground is surely expressive — but is it aghast, dejected, whimsical?

As my frustration mounted, I started to notice its sources. I came to the Munchmuseet knowing I’d write a blog post about my experience. I was looking for something to say — instead, I found overwhelming presence. I’d come armed with readymade admiration — but the paintings demanded to be seen on their own terms.

I’d expected a locked gate — to my frustration, I found an open door.

I photographed the paintings and felt relief. Caught on my phone screen, in the palm of my hand, they were tamed. Their obviousness, their presence were there for all to see. Photography confirmed the rightness of judgments I couldn’t quite articulate.

But by this very taming, something was lost. I realized that what had baffled me most was also what drew me to the paintings — some unresolved tension, questionmark, ambiguity. Something in the space between drawing away from the paint and coming towards it — something in the uncertainty about where to stand.

From the pines’ perspective?

It turns out bafflement was pretty much exactly the audience response Karl Ove Knausgård, who curated the exhibition, intended. He chose unknown pictures to get us “to experience Munch as if viewing him for the first time.” Bafflement, a failure to take it all in — combined with a striking sense of immediacy, rightness, presence. Munch viewed for the first time.

In fact, I had seen Munch for the first time here — seven years earlier. (Both times, I was only stopping by, on my way elsewhere. This year I had a seven-hour stopover in Oslo before my flight to Warsaw; in 2010, I was heading up into Norwegian mountains.) I came away from that exhibition with the sense that Munch’s life had been a progression from darkness to light — and from electrifying to lifeless paintings. I’m not sure if I’d brought my own preconceptions to the exhibition, or if the curators actively encouraged this interpretation, but it seemed like the only really interesting painting Munch had made after the eight months in 1908–1909 he spent at a psychiatric institute had been the triumphant “Sun.” Everything else was happy — and empty.

From the pines’ perspective?

“Towards the Forest” — this year’s exhibition — radically corrected my misconceptions. It begins with a lopsided version of The Sun — a wonderfully imperfect exuberance. Then paintings from different eras in the painter’s life — pre- and post-sun — are indiscriminately juxtaposed. What emerged was a striking unity, and a vital force that transcends any simple dark-light divide.

From the pines’ perspective?

I returned to my failure to assess the emotional valence of some of the paintings. Could it have been based on a false assumption? Are all emotions really either positive or negative? Try introspecting at a random moment during your day: does what you find in your head necessarily feel either good or bad? If not — must it be unemotional?

Last summer, I tried carrying out this somewhat mad experiment on myself: every 15 minutes for 12 hours, I stopped what I was doing to introspect and take my “emotional temperature” — i.e. pay attention to what my mood felt like. The results? Emotional — yes. Clearly positive or negative — almost never.

Perhaps Munch’s forestscapes are just this: glimpses of a fully particularized internal space, richly emotional without a “plus” or “minus” sign.

By reshuffling Munch’s pictures, and bringing new ones out of storage, Knausgård changed the story I tell myself about Munch’s life and work. Now I know, as Knausgård tells us, that Munch “never became stale.” But Knausgård also claims that Munch “never found inner calm” — and this I’m less sure about.

Inner calm doesn’t mean boredom — that’s precisely what Towards the Forest demonstrates. It doesn’t mean lack of emotion either — it doesn’t even mean lack of twisted, writhing trees. It may mean fewer twisted trees — along with a certain power to transform them.

“Towards the Forest” is named after two series of woodcuts Munch painted in 1897 and 1915 (I think). They show two figures huddled together in the dark, walking towards an empty field to a forest looming on the horizon. It’s a startling image — what are these people doing, heading towards the darkest depths — in rather than out — in the dead of night?

From the pines’ perspective?
From the pines’ perspective?

The two wooduts are strikingly similar. The fact that Munch returned to the same motif 18 years later lends credence to Knausgård’s contention that he never found inner calm. Still, there are important differences. The two figures — Munch and his femme fatale — have been transformed into abstract forms of light and darkness. It’s as if the forest needed light as well as darkness, and as if Munch had managed to transform his troubled romantic history into something more universal — without ever letting go of it.

Like the forests in Munch’s paintings, the ones in the woodcuts are inner realms. What both woodcuts agree on is that sometimes the way out of your head is through your head, out of darkness — through darkness.

Munch’s forest is also — art. Quite literally — the horizontal marks on the woodcuts are marks left by the natural grains in the woodblocks Munch was using. He’s making a representation of wood out of wood — and a dark, transformative realm out of the stuff of life. He fed his life into his art — and in turn, his art sustained him.

Munch may never have broken through the forest to find a permanent triumphant light. Instead, he travelled from forest into forest, into forest again— each overgrown with bafflingly perfect trees.