Thoughts on the necessity of seeing special pictures in special places
The seat of the soul is there – where the outer and inner worlds meet – Novalis
In my earlier essay ‘The Uses of Paradox’ I described how I thought particular works of art made their effects. I proposed that the most powerful effects of art were made by breaking down the learned and social operations of the psyche, and by so doing, gaining access to the subconscious and its archetypal contents. I suggested that the way to do this would be to present our perceptions with certain visual, aural or semantic paradoxes. In the brain’s confusion that follows a confrontation with such a paradox, deeper levels of consciousness might become accessible undiluted by local habits and learned interpretations of perception. The effect of this would be to evoke an apprehension of the world and its objects not just in their physical sense but coloured and brought to life by their marriage with the underlying archetypal structures that give numinous character to our perceptions.
To observe, manage and develop these experiences the psyche must make use of a system of super-superegos, which would oversee a cycle of two psychic modes – the first involved and attached, the second distanced and unmoved – and this in a continuous progression. This notion of spiralling reassessment of experience presents a new idea.
One has here a model of the psyche different from the classical Freudian description. It appears to me that if one can postulate a super-ego, it must follow that one can look at it so as to describe and assess its contents. And so we must ask what is it that is examining the superego? Taken to its end this thought creates a new image of the psychic structure – that of a continuously self-referential system of intellectual and emotional feedback. In this model whatever is thought or felt has the in-built ability to review itself. A limitless hall of mirrors is created where the end is only determined by self or socially imposed restrictions.
To speculate further, if this reflecting mode of thought is allowed to progress beyond a local and restricted interpretation of perception, a state of mind may be achieved close to that sought as the end result of various forms of meditation. In my view this resultant state – that is, the marriage of conscious perception with the subconscious along with the ability to examine ones emotional response to this from an increasingly detached standpoint – would promote in the individual a greatly enhanced capacity for ‘compassion’. This may sound a little odd but I can think of no other word that can convey accurately the sense of the state I am referring to. This process would not necessarily therefore be a matter of innate individual character, but the result of following a deliberate, psychologically progressive pathway. This would seem to be a desirable and an achievable aim.
In terms of our subject I have been talking about works of art which would not only assist in these psychological transactions, but would actually instigate them in a receptive audience. As examples of the power attributed to the kind of iconic images as I am referring to, let me quote references from two very different cultures. The first is from the Tantric tradition of India:
‘ . . . . if one addresses one’s love to an image, which is merely modified material signifying devata (divine figure) one can end in love for the Devata (divine principal). And since the activity of puja (practical worship) is only a preliminary to, not a substitute for, genuine meditation, an image which is beautifully and correctly conceived can supply a visual pattern for meditation. By concentrating on the actual icon one can awaken its inner image in the mind for inward meditation and worship.’ (1)
Now from the Byzantine poet Agathias (c.532 – c.580) commenting on an icon of the archangel Gabriel:
‘The mortal man who beholds the image directs his mind to a higher contemplation. His veneration is no longer distracted: engraving within himself the (archangel’s) traits, he trembles as if he were in the latter’s presence. The eyes encourage deep thoughts, and art is able by means of colours to ferry over the prayer of the mind’. (2)
In this scenario both the beholder and the artist would be profoundly involved in an emotional attachment to the world (the icon) but also at the same time distanced from it and the thoughts and emotions engendered by it (the higher meditation).
The works of art that can induce this emotional response in the receptive viewer were the subject of my last chapter and I spoke of them as of objects in isolation. Here I would like to look at, not the artwork itself, but the environments in which these transactions may take place for their optimum effect, and why certain places are more conducive to these experiences than others. However, first we must look in detail at what takes place within the transactions themselves.
In 1933 the British climber Frank Smythe, heading alone for his camp at around 8300 metres on the north side of Mount Everest, experienced a curious but not uncommon phenomenon. He wrote:
‘All the time I was climbing alone I felt I was accompanied by a second person. This feeling was so strong that it completely eliminated all loneliness I might otherwise have felt. It even seemed that I was tied to my ‘companion’ by a rope, and that if I slipped ‘he’ would hold me. I remember constantly looking back over my shoulder, and once, when I stopped to try to eat some mint cake, I carefully divided it and turned round with one half in my hand. It was almost a shock to find no one to whom to give it. It seemed to me that this ‘presence’ was a strong, helpful and friendly one, and it was not until Camp VI was sighted that the link connecting me, as it seemed at the time to the beyond, was snapped, and, although Shipton and the camp were but a few yards away, I suddenly felt alone.’ (3)
In 1978 Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler became the first climbers to reach the summit of Everest without the use of supplementary oxygen. Messner, in 1980, then attempted, and succeeded, again without oxygen equipment, in another climb to the summit of Everest. The difference was that this time he was alone. He wrote at his camp at 7,800m
‘The bright sun reflecting off the snow offers a great deal of warmth and comfort as I chew dried meat and sip this salty brew of Tibetan tea leaves. I don’t feel alone. Instead I sense a companionship. There’s always that someone to keep me company when I reach these altitudes on my own. Perhaps its that partner within myself’. (4)
In 1988 Steven Venables, after an astonishing new climb on the Kangshung face of Everest, was approaching the summit. His mind was drifting. He wrote:
‘It was at this stage that an imaginary old man first appeared. I never identified him, but this alter ego was to accompany me on and off for the rest of the day, sometimes comforting me and advising me, sometimes seeking my support. I do not know what he looked like . . . but at moments I was acutely aware of the presence of this other older person. As I reached up to the rocks I told myself the old man would approve: the solidity and security of the rocks would appeal to his sense of tradition.’ (5)
Venables reached the summit alone. On his descent he was forced to spend a night out on the south ridge at over 8,000 metres with no sleeping bag or tent. The old man shared his ledge. In the morning Venables could see down to the South Col and the tent where his real companions awaited him. The old man had gone.
These instances of the bursting forth into consciousness of subconscious elements are not unusual. In the cases mentioned here it is the particular physical circumstances which have provided the right stage onto which these figures can make an appearance. The obvious common denominator is the isolation of the individual. We could add exhaustion, the effects of high altitude and the tension produced by the danger inherent in the situation. However it is well documented that this kind of visitation has been reported by those not exhausted, not at high altitude and not in dangerous situations. The common factor is the isolation. In deserts, on the high seas, in the vast forests of the world the isolated human psyche brings forth images for its own comfort and companionship. It is worth noting also that it is in these very remote areas that those reported, but never confirmed, creatures – the Yeti, the Sasqatch and others – make themselves manifest.
In some of these cases this isolation would have been extended over days, even weeks. Only the necessary bodily requirements and functions represent attachment to regular human activity. An imagined social life maybe induced by writing a diary or speaking to friends in ones head. But that is all. There are no imperatives coming from without ones own mind apart from the necessaries of physical survival. The usual social transactions, the complex net of human interactions which keeps us busily divided from our subconscious has been jettisoned. The mind has been set free to roam. But it roams in two directions. The aware consciousness might willingly descend into dream and memory as a deliberate attempt to find company or occupation. However, in the cases here it will be noticed that the projections appeared not by the subject willing them to do so, but were released into consciousness by a psychic mechanism set in motion by the prevailing circumstances. The relationship between the phantom figures and the person involved is one that has been instigated by the subconscious without reference to the conscious will or desire of the subject.
It is quite easy, and appropriate I believe, to draw a parallel between these isolated experiences and the general perception of existence held by the majority of human beings. This perception tells them they are not alone in the universe, that there is a person, often in the figure of a cosmic father, looking after them. One could then suggest that the emotional reaction to the discovered existential situation of the conscious human creature, finding itself alone in an indifferent cosmos, draws forth from the subconscious these emanations as necessary companions.
With the circumstances of these experiences in mind we might then consider certain other situations, this time deliberately constructed by people with the very idea of invoking and augmenting similar confrontations with the subconscious. In the Hindu tradition, for example, some adherents practice a variety of physical and mental deprivations in order to put themselves into a state of physical and mental readiness for this experience. These actions of chosen self-torture, sensory deprivation or isolation are common in many ascetic forms of devotional practices world wide. In many well-known instances those reported, legendary experiences of revelation ascribed to the most influential religious leaders in history have taken place in precisely those conditions. Moses alone on Mount Sinai receiving the word and laws of God, Jesus in the desert visited by Satan. Mohammed in his high mountain cave being dictated the Koran by the angel Gabriel. The Buddha sitting still and silent for many days under the Bodi tree until enlightenment came. The list is formidable. Transactions with the subconscious occur in places away from social interaction.
This desire for transaction has also called into being physical structures that both replicate or develop and refine the elements necessary that make such communication possible. The churches, temples and theatres of the world are our isolating and sacred places. These are the arenas where we allow ourselves, far from our social ties, the necessary psychological exploration, and where the circumstances nurture a rising to consciousness of the archetypal images we seek. These meetings make the experience of our lives full of numinous wonder and drama. It is the transforming contact we crave and work for in all our rituals of art and culture. It is no wonder that the places where this ritual is performed have become the most treasured and treasure filled structures on earth.
It now becomes clear that these arenas of transaction, if they are not to be found naturally, have to be constructed. The manner and style that these structures take is dependent on the culture that gives birth to them. But in essence they are all the same. They are places apart, and they are brought into being by the practice of the creative arts.
The desire for transaction
Now we have to examine the idea, hinted at above, that what I am calling a contact with the archetypes of the subconscious, most others will call contact with God. It would seem essential to me, if any progress were to be made on this subject, to reject once and for all the notion of a supernatural -‘outside’- god. I am quite aware that the vast majority of the world’s population would still, at this time, disagree with me. However, we must now recognise that the projections that humans make on the physical world – to help them make sense of it and to give themselves a sense of identity – are entirely of human construction – conscious or not. It is becoming progressively clear in the most recent studies into the way our brains function that we are in effect ‘dreaming’ the world and only have to alter that dream when we, as it were, trip over a piece of matter. Even then, to identify the piece of matter we must describe it, name it and give it a character – all in human terms. There has obviously been some symbiotic relationship in the structuring of the human psyche and its surroundings but it seems now that the relationship between what is ‘out there’ and our perception of it, is tenuous indeed.
I will use the term ‘God’ here as a description of profound emotional feelings engendered by certain contacts with, or emanations from, particular areas of the subconscious. The numinous experiences which have lead humans to name as ‘God’ the sense of personal, yet at the same time seemingly universal, contact with the vital source of life, are part of the correspondence with the subconscious I am to discuss here.
(I have been deeply moved by the idea that when people are seen to be praying or publicly addressing their ‘God’ they are in effect addressing a part of themselves beyond their own apprehension or understanding. This to me is an image of the human situation both profound and pathetic).
I believe that this contact we seek is necessitated by two forceful imperatives and that these two operate on our actions simultaneously. The first I have already mentioned. This is the idea that without the colouring of physical experience by emotional reactions emanating from the archetypal contents of the subconscious, life has no savour, and personal identity is lost. Our ability to name things, react and relate to them disappears. We become machines. We must marry the inner experience with the outer or we die to the world.
The second reason for this contact, again already touched on, is the reaction of the psyche to its discovered existential situation. Given what has been said already about the brain’s ability to dream itself into and through existence, we could say that the situation the waking human consciousness finds itself in would demand a certain response in the form of particular ‘dream’ scenarios. These scenarios are various and often mixed but not too diverse to prevent an attempt even in a short essay such as this to enumerate some of the main ideas. It will be noted that these responses may not, generally are not, conscious workings out and the ‘shape’ of them may even be of archetypal provenance.
My starting image is that of consciousness discovering itself in a sometimes violent, sometimes sensually conducive, but always personally indifferent and non-communicative universe.
The first idea is that, having attained consciousness, the human creature has reacted with alarm and dismay to the situation in which it finds itself. It then seeks oblivion or shelter from the perceived nightmare.
A second would be that a feeling of terror might be aroused by the horrific ways of nature and that the only way to ameliorate or annul this would be to become one with it. To run with the lions or fight them, rather than fear them from a distance.
A third might be that, having attained consciousness, the creature is awe struck by the sensory experience of the physical world and the sense of wonder or ecstasy its perceptions of it induce. In this state the human would seek, quite sensibly one would have to admit, to augment and continue this condition.
If we now look at the broad swathe of religious and social practices of our species we can see an obvious correlation of certain rituals, beliefs and activities, with the scenarios outlined above.
For instance, one could say that the level of religious observance which calls for submission in all things to a received and irrefutable ‘message’ would be a way of avoiding contact with the horrific world and hiding within a tight, unshakeable confine of dogma. The reality outside would be reconstructed, or glossed over with projections to form a more amenable outlook. The whole structure of the social environment would have to be shaped to express this projection.
In the second instance, the idea of aligning ones world view with the horror of existence could be seen in common sacrificial rituals, often extremely violent and bloody, which have been used to placate the monstrous way of the world and help the supplicant identify with the godhead, become one with it. Political quasi-religious groupings – the Nazis, or people who follow evolution theory to the limits of eugenics for example – would fall into this category.
A third possibility would be to choose the road to ecstasy – the augmenting of available sensation to induce a psychic state in which the world might be experienced whole in the profoundest emotional configuration. I would differentiate immediately the parallel path to ecstasy that may be induced by the use of drugs. Drugs used for these purposes – up to the present – seem to block off as much as they reveal. The sort of ecstasy I am referring to is that which might be inclusive and lead to an expanded feeling of contact with the two worlds we have been discussing. It would induce a dual vision of the world – one in which both the horror and indifference of the just-so universe and an emotional state of compassionate ecstasy would be experienced simultaneously. In Jungian terms this whole image equates with the experience in individuation of the Self. To do this the supplicant must combine a rational, cold look at the world with an intense emotional sub-structure. In other words they must marry their perceptions of the external world with their internal dream state or subconscious. But this marriage itself must be overseen by our super-superego and its endless mirror images. The containing, reflecting Self.
We have been able to induce this state in two ways – either by chance of circumstance or by deliberately constructing a theatre wherein this drama can take place. The forms used in the construction of this theatre are the brought to life by the forces of art but they would seem to be fundamentally allied to the most basic of actions where the subconscious is indeed communed with – the primal act of going to bed in the dark, of going to sleep and dreaming.
The awakening ecstasy
In all of the current world religions there are always, to one side of the particular dogmatic core of each faith, an effective group of adherents who seem to have found a way through and out of the conservative centre. It is in some of these maverick overlays or developments that we find groups of people who wish to follow the third of my paths to ‘god’. This, to repeat, is the path leading to contact with the living and invigorating emotional sea of the subconscious, the road to what they might term ecstatic revelation.
In Hinduism there is the dramatic and sensual offshoot of the Tantra movement. In Buddhism one might cite Zen as the revolutionary side to the orthodox traditions. In Christianity the way to ecstatic revelation has been rather quashed by the Reformation but nevertheless there have been many mystics whose experiences have fed the main tradition. In Islam there are the Sufis.
The earliest use of the term ‘Sufi’ would seem to come from around 850. However, a move away from the original doctrinal and philosophical emphasis of Islam towards a life totally dedicated to contact with God was happening soon after the Islamic triumphs of the 7th century. It was from the first an ascetic movement. The word ‘sufi’ seems to derive either from ‘suf’ meaning wool (and may refer to the plain woollen dress of the early adherents) or ‘safa’ meaning ‘purity’ and possibly refers to ‘method’ or ‘inner beliefs’.
Sufism is not one thing. It has many schools and many different interpretations. The majority of its forms however do share the common theme of making direct contact with God. In some traditions this pathway to the divine has been found through many forms of art. That is, in some instances art has been used – music, dance, poetry, images, and color – to induce a union with ‘God’.
To begin with we can take a look at some quotations from the earlier Sufis and see how one might align the ideascontained in them with my idea of making contact with the subconscious. These phrases and sayings would indicate a journey inward, a search through day to day consciousness to that beyond and deeper – to an undivided and containing sense of self beyond ego.
‘Whoever has heard of me, let him come and see me; let him search for me. He will find me – then let him choose none other than I’. (Shamsuddin of Tabrizi)
‘His ego falls like a battered wall. He unites with god, alive, but emptied of himself’ (Rumi)
‘O heart, sleep from thought, for thought is the heart’s snare. Go not to God except disengaged from all things’. (Rumi)
‘First give that cup to the talkative ego so that its rational faculty will tell no more tales. Once rationality is blocked, a torrent will come and erase all signs of this world and place’ (Rumi)
‘ . . . the paradise which is none other than yourself, that is to say the divine form hidden in your being, the secret primordial Image in which he knows himself in you and by you, the image you must contemplate in order to become aware that ‘he who knows himself, knows his Lord’ And the Gnostic who in this ‘himself’ attains the coalescence of the creator and the creature, this is the supreme joy. (Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn al- Arabi) (6)
In Morocco one can find the Gnawa. This group of adherents practise a powerful form of ritual that demonstrates forcibly for my purposes here the use of art in leading both audience and artists into an ecstatic experience of life by gaining contact with the subconscious. Note here that this ritual is performed by what were almost certainly originally nomadic peoples and the sacred ‘place’ has of necessity to be imaginatively created wherever the rite is required to be performed.
This is a quotation from the publicity of the Gnawa Sidi Mimoun of Casablanca (I have removed many of the Arabic names for conciseness).
The Gnawa of Morocco are the descendants of the black slaves deported from the countries of sub-Saharan west Africa. In Morocco their ancestral practices have been influenced by the tasawwuf (Sufism, Islamic esoterism), giving a tariqa (brotherhood, mystical path) that has as patron the marabut Sidi Bilal, Prophet and first muezzin of Islam.
Musicians and dancers, the Gnawa perform a complex liturgy, that re-create the first sacrifice and the genesis of the universe by the evocation of the seven main manifestations of the divine demiurgic activity, the seven mluk, represented by seven colours, as a prismatic decomposition of the original light/energy.
The mluk are evoked by seven musical patterns, seven melodic and rhythmic cells, who – repeated and varied – set up the seven suites that form the repertoire of dance and music of the Gnawa ritual. During these seven suites, seven different types of incense are burned and the dancers are covered by veils of seven different colours.
Each one of the seven mluk is accompanied by many “personages”, identifiable by the music and by the footsteps of the dance: these entities, treated like “presences” that the consciousness meets in ecstatic space/time, are related with mental complexes, human characters and behaviors. The aim of the ritual is to reintegrate and to balance the main powers of the human body, made by the same energy that supports the perceptible phenomena and the divine creative activity.
Inside the brotherhood, each group gets together with the priestess that leads the ecstatic dance, and with the master of the lute-drum, who is accompanied by several players of iron castanets.
Preceded by an animal sacrifice, that assures the maintenance of the presences, the night-ritual starts with the opening and the consecration of the space, the `aada, when the Gnawa musicians perform a swirling acrobatic dance, playing the qraqeb and double-skin big drums.
Later, the lute drum opens the treq (path), the strictly encoded sequence of the ritual repertoire of music, dances, colours and incenses, that guide in the ecstatic trip across the realms of the seven mluk, until the renaissance in the common world, at the first lights of dawn. (7)
This description leaves out any notion of the overwhelming sensory experience that the music, dance and colour have on both audience and artists. I have seen a performance of pre-ritual music of the Gnawa in Tangier. I can confirm, even in the truncated version I witnessed, the extremely powerful combined effect of very loud and complex rhythmic music, the visual rhythm of the dancers, the subtle changes to the rhythm (essential) and the sense of having gone through a psychological ‘path’ throughout the performance.
It will be noted that this particular performance aligns itself with the coming of night, the darkness wherein communication with the ‘self’ is possible and the coming back to the ‘common world’ at dawn. Our simple idea of going to bed to dream. Also that the area of the performance, the aada, must first be defined and consecrated before any transforming act can take place. The ritual then takes the form of several sequences that must be gone through in strict order. In each of these sequences there is great room for improvisation and they do not end until a certain mood has been achieved.
In these performances we can see the living root of all art in its most profound usage – that of transporting both the artist and the audience via effective ritual and artistry to a contact with their own subconscious oceans of feeling.
The synchronistic arts
If what I have said in relation to the Gnawa musicians is correct, then we must find a trace of the basic forms of their rites in other works of art and ritual throughout the world and throughout history. And this we certainly do – even in the confines of a restrictive culture and religion; those that dictate the dream and the myth with which the supplicant is allowed to communicate.
Before we look at one of those examples in detail let us go back in time as far as we dare. It would be impossible to reconstruct anything much of the rituals of the European Palaeolithic cave painters of c.20,000 years ago. It may well be that many of their paintings made in sites of easy access have been weathered away and so would not conform to the following speculation. However, the difficulty of entering and working in the caves we do know would have been considerable and certainly point to the outline of a ritual we might identify as our basic form. We can imagine the entering of this special, dark place and the performance of some known ritual away from the commonplace (even if this ritual was the creation of the paintings themselves). And after the rites, the re-emergence into the light of the daily round once more. This simple structure – entry into the special place, the rite, the exit from the special place – is the model for all ritual, theatre and experience of art world-wide. It might seem hardly worth pointing this out. However, where this ritual doesn’t pertain, the experience of the transactions we are looking at is seriously weakened or of no effect at all.
From here on one could describe all the temples, churches and theatres, and their rituals that have existed in all parts of the world and throughout time as examples of this same rite. For a refined and complex instance of this I will look at just one supreme example – the great Orthodox churches and rituals of Byzantium.
In Orthodox Byzantium it can be seen that the churches were constructed and decorated and the rites devised, as in other temples, to achieve a particular transforming effect. They did this via the architectural design, by the precise ordering of the decoration, by the pathways laid out for the adherents through set rituals, by the music and even by the incense that augmented the visual and aural environment. In Byzantium this combination was taken to a completeness of expression rarely achieved elsewhere. The services of the Orthodox Church have developed over many years but one might make a generic description with the following.
On entering the ‘sacred place’ from the bright daylight into a dark and candle lit interior, one finds oneself in a vast, enclosed space. The entire surface of the walls is painted and decorated. On the lower register of these walls, at human level, are representations of the saints and holy people of the faith. Life size or bigger these represent the host of the faithful on earth and visitors find themselves standing among them. The figures stare out at the viewers as if in communion with them.
‘The image is not separated from the beholder by the imaginary glass pane of the picture plane behind which an illusionistic picture begins: it opens into the real space in front where the beholder lives and moves . . . The beholder . . .is not cut off from (the images); he is bodily enclosed in the grand icon of the church; he is surrounded by the congregation of the saints and takes part in the events he sees’. (8)
In many churches other wooden panels containing icons supplemented these mural congregations. These icons, after the beholders have perambulated and venerated the host of saints around them on the walls, are greeted with low bows, the sign of the cross is made and the image kissed. Finally the saint is communed with in prayer and the members of the congregation take their places for the service.
Lifting ones head, the higher registers of the wall paintings reveal the narrative stories of the actions and drama that had precipitated the building and the rite from the beginning. Even higher, in the dome over the nave is the immense image of Christ ‘Pantokrator’ – the ‘All-ruler’ or cosmic godhead, and in the vault above the apse perhaps another vast representation the Virgin and Child. The viewer has been lead from the mundane life in the street outside, in a series of deliberate stages, to archetypal images of the whole universe.
The rituals accompanying this visual journey are devised to enhance the experience on other levels. The chants and prayers and the shape of the ritual itself all leading the worshipper further and further away from the commonalities of life. In some services the communion with God is first performed by the clergy behind a curtain, out of sight of the congregation. The priest then emerges from the sanctuary – that place where the rising archetype and the descending consciousness meet – and brings the chalice containing the symbols of sacred body of Christ forward, while the choir chant ‘Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord! God is the Lord and has revealed himself to us!’
This experience could be overwhelming. Ambassadors in 987, sent to Constantinople by Prince Vladimir of Kiev to observe, among other things, rituals among foreign states, reported back:
‘We knew not whether we were in heaven or earth. For on earth is no such splendour or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty. Every man, after tasting something sweet, is afterward unwilling to accept something bitter, and therefore we cannot dwell longer here’. (9)
In these instances, as in many other rites and rituals devised throughout world history the entire range of art media is used to make the desired effect. Architecture and interior design, illusionistic and abstract painting, theatrical performance (and theatre design one could say), music, poetry and movement and even the sense of smell being stimulated. All these brought together with the purpose of transporting the beholder into a state of mind where communion with ‘God’ or as I am suggesting the subconscious, may take place. And all this in a special ‘place’ designed for that very purpose.
We can see in the contrast between the Gnawa and the Orthodox Christian rituals that these ‘transactions’ and their temples may be constructed by both liberating, open ended cultural activities or dogmatic, repressive and dictatorial systems.
One can see straight away that what we have described is something common to all cultures in infinite variation. In our time, particularly in the west, with the falling away of belief in supernatural (the ‘outside’ gods) we have devised other ways of retaining necessary contact with the contents of our subconscious. These new forms of art retain all the outward forms used in the sacred places of history, only this parallel is perhaps not recognised as such by those that use them. It might be argued that with the fall of the temples came the rise of the theatres.
For one simple instance we could look at structure of cinemas and the presentations of films in the early years of the 20th century. Indeed many of the great cinemas built in the twenties and thirties were in the form of ancient temples. Egyptian Halls were common and in one great instance – the Granada Cinema in Tooting, in south London, the ‘picture palace’ took the shape and ambience, in its extraordinary interior, of a gothic cathedral. These buildings were entered through grand entrance halls, peopled with uniformed guardians. The lighted and glamorous entrance was exchanged for a dark interior. Music played. Finally the lights would dim and a new dream world would be revealed with the parting of the curtain. And, given the quality of the work presented, the performance could transport the viewers into realms of feeling unavailable in the outside world. The end would be signalled by a communal moment – mostly the playing of a National Anthem – and the audience/congregation would emerge into the real world once more.
Even more recently, this report of a newly built ‘theatre’ for showing off fashion wear gives us a description of a special place and ritual very similar to those mentioned above. The difference is in the content, the ‘show’ and the reason for the ‘show’. What we have here is the unconscious striving for these rituals to become manifest, even in the most unlikely of scenarios:
‘The passage from the messy industrial suburbs of Milan outside to the world of Armani inside is marked by a stately march of austere concrete columns. This indoor avenue suddenly opens up into a great reception space, in which Ando has recreated what feels suspiciously like one of Richard Serra’s monumental tilted arcs in concrete. The reception desks could pass for art too, immaculate, precise, glass boxes illuminated from within as if they were by Dan Flavin.
Giant doors open into the theatre, and next to it is an austere, magnificently proportioned dining-room, its low windows carefully positioned to frame the reflecting pool in the courtyard outside for a glass of champagne after the show. Whatever the clothes are actually like, nobody can fail to come away convinced that they have taken part in an event. Ando’s architecture has been turned into a magnificently crafted concrete picture frame. This is an environment in which the notional functional purposes of the fashion show are left far behind. The show has become an end in itself, one which has little to do with the mundane process of showing buyers clothes for them to place orders to sell in their shops. The show has been turned into an event, while the real business takes place elsewhere.’ (10)
The diaspora of the iconic image
My argument now is that the potential psychological effect created by a powerful work of art loses a great deal of its power if the transactions it attempts to stimulate are not enacted within an archetypal ‘sacred’ place and in rituals similar to those described here. The result of a lack of these circumstances in our own epoch has meant to me that the potency of the exhibited static visual image is at an extremely low ebb.
Since the 14th century the temples of transaction, certainly in the west, have been losing their power and the elements which made up the whole edifice of the experience of communion enacted therein have been dispersed. The great iconic paintings drifted from the churches to the guildhalls and to the houses of merchants. From there to the academies, and to the middle class homes of the 19th century. Now they have come to rest as reproduced prints in homes and shops or as gigantic vagrant originals in public galleries. Much like the medieval or renaissance altarpieces, Indian temple sculpture or Japanese Zen paintings, set up out of context in strange conjunctions in the museums of the world, they hang stranded, out of place, out of time, out of energy. Objects displayed like this only attain renewed life by some fortunate, serendipitous juxtaposition. This account, seemingly simplistic, does bear examination. For what are the expected experiences of visitors to either commercial galleries – the shops of art – or to blockbuster’ exhibitions now such a common feature of contemporary culture? What life enhancing sensation can be had from looking at a painting by Vermeer over the jostling shoulders of a mumbling crowd, often buzzing with the hum of recorded commentaries? And what power has been leaked and lost from the great Easter Island statue stranded for no obvious reason among the tables of the café, set in the shopping mall which is the new British Museum courtyard?
Live music and drama have fared better in this dispersal, as their very nature requires an audience at a particular time and in a particular space. Much of the basics have to be retained. The entry into an extra-ordinary arena, the rites gone through and the emergence later into the world again. However, with the arrival of recorded sound and television the experience of some forms of these works of art have been degraded to ‘home entertainment’, where the performance of even great and potentially transforming creations may be interrupted by anything from the accepted norm of advertising to the need to answer a telephone or to go to the toilet.
At the beginning of this essay we looked at the experiences of people who have found themselves in extremely isolated conditions and as a result have experienced visitations from their subconscious. We then noted that some people actually induce these circumstances in order to call up the desired visitations and take part in a communion with their own subconscious.
Here I am proposing that this act is ultimately an essential, hard-wired ritual, part of the fundamental structure of the human psyche which, if denied, leads to an unsatisfactory, unfulfilled important part of life. A life without these transactions is one in which the roads to ‘enlightenment’ or self-knowledge and to an ‘awareness in existence’ are in part blocked. It is a life in which the apprehension of the physical world as a living mythos can be denied, and one may be left with a sterile experience of life without savour or drama.
(I must say here that there are other paths in experience that might lead to the desired contact with the Self and the essential compassion/serenity cohabitant with it. The chief of these would be the experience of love – its inception in the ecstatic soul mirrored in the face of the loved one, and its following development, by work and chance, into compassion, first for the loved object then on and on beyond. But that is another story.)
I believe that an indication of the fundamental and powerful desire for the re-instatement of the lost theatres of static visual images, certainly in the west, is in the proliferation in contemporary art of installations – the attempt to create that special place wherein transaction or communion can take place. The failure of many of these trials seems to me to reside in the fact that both the structures themselves and the contained ritual experience, fail to demonstrate the vital difference between forms which can take the numinous presence of an archetype, and those which merely repeat the experiences of the world outside. However, these attempts will continue and eventually, given freedom of experimentation, the new temples of a rational and secular age will surely appear.
For those artists wishing to rediscover the true force and utility of their art, as well as those who are left unsatisfied by their aesthetic encounters, it would seem timely to look at these issues in the light of the way our brains, and the perceptions that feed them, function. Its is becoming a commonplace that our former interpretations of our perceptions are not as secure as we thought they were. The tortuous argument as to what is ‘out there’ and what is ‘in here’ is becoming elucidated. It seems we can now adhere with some certainty to the liberating idea that we are ‘dreaming’ our lives and that the psychological structures from which we build our sense of identity and place in the cosmos are open, to a large degree, to our own construction.
The temples of the future, whatever their form might be, will not, one hopes, be those that in ages past crushed the personal myths of individual supplicants under a suffocating weight of received, shared and unchanging dogma. They will be those that will give freedom to the myth creating centre of each and everyone of us. They will endow those who approach the subconscious springs of life in courage and wonder, with a hallowed space where they might meet, not their enslaving gods, but themselves.
It remains to be said that I have not looked at the moral and political implications of the processes examined here. This is a large subject and would necessarily deal with both the negative and the positive aspects of our quest for contact with the subconscious. Whether the uses of these powerful transactions are put to oppressive or liberating ends is a matter of great and immediate importance and it will be the theme of the next chapter.
- From ‘The Art of Tantra’ by Philip Rawson. Thames and Hudson 1973;
- Quoted in ‘The Art of Byzantium’ by Thomas F. Matthews. Everyman library, Weidenfeld and Nicholson Ltd., 1998.
- From ‘Everest 1933’ by Hugh Ruttledge, Hodder and Staughton 1934
- From ‘A Partner in Myself’ by Nena Holguin. Article published in ‘Mountain’, July/August 1981
- From ‘Everest Kangshung Face’ by Stephan Venables. Hodder and Staughton 1989
- Sufi quotations. For information on the Sufi movement and Islam in general a very good web site is at www.arches.uga.edu/~godlas/Sufism.html
This is the web site of Dr. Alan Godlas, professor in the Department of Religion at the University of Georgia.
For an overview of mysticism in world religions try www.digiserve.com/mystic/index.html
- For information on the Gnawa try www.gnawa.net. This is the web site of the Association Sidi Mamoun of Casablanca. It has some basic information plus some inadequate recordings of the music and a discography.
- Quoted in ‘The Art of Byzantium’ by Thomas F. Matthews. Everyman Library, Weidenfeld and Nicholson Ltd., 1998
- From ‘Conservative to the Core in the Theatre of Armani’ by Rebecca Lowthorpe. The Independent, 2 October 2001. It refers to the opening of the Armani Teatro in Milan. The building has been designed by the Japanese architect Tadao Ando.