Fragments of Light

Shifting the Light

The archaic torso in Rilke’s famous poem says to us: “change your life.”  So do any poem  novel, play, painting, musical composition worth meeting. The voice of intelligible form, of the needs of direct address from which such form springs, asks: ‘What do you feel, what do you think of the possibilities of life, of the alternative shapes of being which are implicit in your experience of me, in our encounter?’ The indiscretion of serious art and literature and music is total. It queries the last privacies of our existence. This interrogation, like the winding of the sudden horn at the dark tower in Browning’s emblematic text of the seeking out of being by art, is no abstract dialectic. It purposes change. Early Greek thought identified the Muses with the arts and wonder of persuasion. As the act of the poet is met—and it is the full tenor and rites of this meeting which I would explore—as it enters the precincts, spacial and temporal, mental and physical, of our being, it brings with it a radical calling towards change. The waking, the enrichment, the complication, the darkening, the unsettling of sensibility and understanding which follow on our experience of art are incipient with action. Form is the root of performance. In a wholly fundamental, pragmatic sense, the poem, the statue, the sonata are not so much read, viewed, or heard as they are lived. The encounter with the aesthetic is, together with certain modes of religious and of metaphysical experience, the most ‘ingressive’, transformative summons available to human experiencing. Again, the shorthand image is that of an Annunciation, of “a terrible beauty” or gravity breaking into the small house of our cautionary being. If we have heard rightly the wing-beat and provocation of that visit, the house is no longer habitable in quite the same way as it was before. A mastering intrusion has shifted the light (that is very precisely, non-mystically, the shift made visible in Fra Angelico’s Annunciation).
—George Steiner

This passage from Steiner’s exploration of the transcendental in the arts, Real Presences, leads me to speculate that in undertaking the creative enterprise it is primarily the artist who is unsettled and secondarily his audience. If I am not willing to risk my “cautionary self” how can the forms I seek to whittle and warp aspire to any breadth of freedom? Comments welcome.

8 thoughts on “Shifting the Light

  1. I am currently working on a photography series called, Visual Silence. In looking for images that evoke silence, I’ve realized that the silence I find in the images is the essence of the image without all the chatter of what I bring to that image. I see the sun “caught” in the trees, red, frosted berries, an empty chair for what they are. I think this fits with the above quote because I’m being challenged by my photographs to see things around me as themselves. I’m being questioned to see myself as who I am in my essence.

    1. Deborah,
      I was somewhat puzzled when I read your post. And after thinking about it for a bit I realized that I had assumed that photographing silence meant capturing peace. And indeed the very opposite can occur. It seems that your photos challenge both yourself and the viewer, and unsettle. To be In Silence can be an extremely uncomfortable place to be. I’d love to see some of your images.

  2. Some thoughts on “Shifting the Light”

    As a poet, I usually find the title reveals itself first, rather like seeing a butterfly briefly and before I know it, I am constrained to write all subsequent thoughts as an exploration of understanding and knowledge, of belief, connection and communication in much the same way as I would converse with God who is the Giver of this gift.
    It usually is an emotional process and demands paying close attention to the new awareness that comes to me. Afterwards, I realise I’m more in touch with my feelings and quite often, inner healing takes place as I see myself in God’s light and discover that it’s alright. As I’ve come to accept that feelings are neither right nor wrong but are very good indicators of what is happening inside myself, this is a very helpful way for me to know who I am and who I now want to be and to move on with my life in more appropriate ways.
    Yes, change takes place and I, the poet, choose to gently launch myself into the deep and trust in God more and more. The freedom for this poet comes when she gives her poems away and thus allows herself to be vulnerable and possibly even to look foolish for Goodness’s Sake.
    If I do not speak up, others who might be more timid than I, might not come to understand that it’s OK to have these or similar feelings and possibly not gain their freedom to use their voices. What a loss that would be.

  3. And yet no art form demands the receiver’s transformation or response. Art strikes me as much like Kafka’s doorman in Trial – it receives when we enter and dismisses us when we leave. Our reaction can be transcendent – art, even without an overt message or lesson, can speak to us, but we need not listen or see.

  4. Yes, even though Art (and God) is always available to us, how seldom do we really hear or see. It seems that as long as we are human beings living our life here on earth, it will be only the exceptional moments that will truly transport us. I think it’s about letting ourselves really be transported when the moment is upon us and giving attention to how we have been changed so that we can pick up our life from this changed place. How do we assimilate the freedom that the rare “Annunciations” of our life offer us?

  5. Would your “cautionary self” be the self that clutches the coverlet to its chin and ponders “what manner of greeting this might be”? The self that hesitates…that does not especially “want the change”? Then yes… risk it you must.

    1. Ah, yes. On a good day I may “ponder what manner of greeting this might be” on a bad day I am more likely to dive beneath the covers.

      In his 1999 Letter to Artists, His Holiness Pope John Paul II referred to Fra Angelico as “An eloquent example of aesthetic contemplation sublimated in faith . . . ” ( a comment which, in itself, would be very interesting to work with ​). There is also commentary among scholars about Fra Angelico​’s use of light—his theology of light. Which leads me to consider that the “transformative summons” is not always seated in our personal emotions.

      1. I don’t know Fra Angelico and his “uncreated light” as well as I should but in looking at the San Marco Annunciation (the smaller one, seemingly in one of the cells) I noted, and forgive me for conflating these things, the resemblance of the smudgy shadow on the wall behind Mary to photographs I once saw of similar smudgy shadows in Hiroshima, and it occurred to me that perhaps one can imagine Fra Angelico’s “shadow” here as cast by Mary’s “cautionary being” burned away in angelic radiance.
        Where one’s “personal emotions” begin and end is often difficult to say. I want to give voice to the notion that the “transformative summons” is not always pleasant or welcome, and can in fact be rather frightening and painful. Rather than the Annunciation, I think of the Conversion of Saul, that we are knocked off our horse and fall heavily into the stony path, and that the art may come from what happens as our sight returns.

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