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Love Letters

February 16, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

“Sanskrit has 96 words for love; ancient Persian has 80, Greek three, and English only one.” - Robert Johnson, The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden

I think that it would be ideal to have somewhere between 96 and 3 words for love. Certainly, one does not seem enough. It is much like the word nature, which contains so much. When discussing literature, we spend so much time just trying to figure out what type of love we are talking about...what type of love the characters demonstrate. Moreover, we use the same word to say that we love something as silly as ice cream, and something as serious as a lost loved one. The following love letters fit the week's theme, which celebrates St. Valentine. They are an exchange between Nathaniel Hawthorne and his future wife Sophia Peabody. They married in 1842 and had three children and a long marriage. Though both were known to be quiet and reclusive, these letters prove of an intense and passionate relationship.

Nathaniel Hawthorne referred to Sophia as his “Dove” and said that she was his sole companion. He continues, “I need no other - there is no vacancy in my mind, any more than in my heart... Thank God that I suffice for her boundless heart!” After their first child was born, Nathaniel Hawthorne also felt a different kind of love and he voices this profound responsibility of fatherhood. He writes, “I have business on earth now, and must look about me for the means of doing it.”

We wish you health, happiness and love. Contemplate and celebrate the many meanings of love this week!

Nathaniel Hawthorne to Sophia Peabody, December 5, 1839

Dearest, – I wish I had the gift of making rhymes, for methinks there is poetry in my head and hear since I have been in love with you. You are a Poem. Of what sort, then? Epic? Mercy on me, no! A sonnet? No; for that is too labored and artificial. You are a sort of sweet, simple, gay pathetic ballad, which Nature is singing, sometimes with tears, sometimes with smiles, and sometimes with intermingled smiles and tears.

 

Sophia Peabody to Nathaniel Hawthorne, December 31, 1839

Best Beloved, – I send you some allumettes wherewith to kindle the taper. There are very few but my second finger could no longer perform extra duty. These will serve till the wounded one be healed, however. How beautiful it is to provide even the slightest convenience for you, dearest! I cannot tell you how much I love you, in this back-handed style. My love is not in this attitude, - it rather bends forwards to meet you.

What a year this has been to us! My definition of Beauty is, that it is love, and therefore includes both truth and good. But those only who love as we do can feel the significance and force of this.

My ideas will not flow in these crooked strokes. God be with you. I am very well, and have walked far in Danvers this cold morning. I am full of the glory of the day. God bless you this night of the old year. It has proved the year of our nativity. Has not the old earth passed away from us? - are not all things new?

Your Sophie

- These letters can be found in: Forever Yours: Letters of Love. St. Martin's Press, 1991.

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Alyosha in Brothers Karamazov

February 17, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

In “Philebus”, Socrates and Protarchus attempt to understand unity. Socrates states, “The one and many become identified by thought...They run about together, in and out of every word which is uttered...This union of them will never cease, and is not now beginning, but is an...everlasting quality of thought itself, which never grows old.” In other words, the idea of unity is an ancient one – older even than Plato's writings and Socrates himself. So it is not surprising that Dostoevsky also grapples with forms of unity in The Brothers Karamazov. In the Epilogue, Alyosha (also Alexei) and the schoolboys grab hands and vow to never forget their friend Ilyushka. This action strongly resembles Jesus Christ with his disciples. Alyosha says to his friends and disciples, “You are all dear to me, gentlemen, from now on I shall keep you all in my heart, and I ask you to keep me in your hearts, too! Well, and who has united us in this good, kind feeling, which we will remember and intend to remember always, all our lives, who, if not Ilyushechka, that good boy, that kind boy, that boy dear to us unto ages of ages! Let us never forget him, and may his memory be eternal and good in our hearts now and unto ages of ages!”  After this proclamation, all the boys join in and reinforce Alyosha's words. What strikes me with interest is the way in which Dostoevsky wrote this scene. He has all boys join in as if one voice, then occasionally separates out a single voice. It is important that at times the voices are indistinguishable. For example, the boy who yells “Karamazov, we love you!” is possibly Kartashov's, but not definitively.  The others join in again as one mixture. Only Kolya and Alyosha are singled out as individuals. Part of this is due to the fact that the narrator never introduced the other boys to the reader. They have always existed for us as a group. The religious metaphor is obvious, but I am curious about the idea of one among many and how the many become one. Certainly, they have agreed upon a pact, but also, this decision (if we can call it that) was led by Alyosha. Kolya strongly reinforces Alyosha's idea, and therefore, the others all follow along. In my mind, then, Alyosha and Kolya rise slightly above the others in their importance, which makes it difficult for me to label them as a single, unified body.

From the beginning of the novel, the narrator has always claimed that Alyosha was intended to be the hero of this novel. He says this despite the fact that no one will not believe it. He writes, “But suppose they read the novel and do not see, do not agree with the noteworthiness of my Alexei Fyodorovich? I say this because, to my sorrow, I foresee it. To me he is noteworthy, but I decidedly doubt that I shall succeed in proving it to the reader. The thing is that he does, perhaps, make a figure, but a figure of an indefinite, indeterminate sort. Though it would be strange to demand clarity from people in a time like ours. One thing, perhaps, is rather doubtless: he is a strange man, even an odd one. But strangeness and oddity will sooner harm than justify any claim to attention, especially when everyone is striving to unite particulars and find at least some general sense in the general senselessness. Whereas an odd man is most often a particular and isolated case”. After I finished reading the novel, I realized how closely Alyosha aligns with another great Dostoevsky character. The main character in the short story “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” is also odd, unique, different, and therefore, separate. In this story, the narrator desires that everyone laugh at him, and in return he gives only love and forgiveness. Alyosha too gives love and forgiveness. At times Alyosha's family embarrasses him (as in the scene in front of Zosima), but he forgives all of their irrational, eccentric and immoral actions. Alyosha never waivers in his love. He grants acceptance and love to all. For this reason, the narrator names him as the hero of the story.

Just after Ilyushka dies, the narrator notes, “They all [the boys] stopped at the big stone. Alyosha looked and the whole picture of what Snegiryov [Ilyushka's father] had once told him about Ilyushechka, crying and embracing his father, exclaiming: 'Papa, papa, how he humiliated you!' rose at once in his memory. Something shook, as it were, in his soul.”  In other words, something from deep within Alyosha forces him to stop these boys and mark the importance of the moment. It is different from his reaction to his own father's death or even Dmitri's trial, for example. This created community, this unity, marks an important change. It forces him to create a bond from a moment of suffering. Once he proclaims that they must all remember, they have something more important than friendship: unity. Even though it is noted that they will all go their separate ways, and may err or get in trouble, Alyosha demands that they recognize how goodness once filled them. Their unity is not one of similarity. They are unified solely through past experience, which now must be recalled by memory alone. Or, as Socrates states, they are unified in thought only.

Yet this unity is not an ideological one, not one of reason, but more closely resembles passion. Dostoevsky masterfully crafts each character, and Alyosha is a good example. He is reminiscent of Christ, but not the same as Christ. Alyosha does no teaching in this novel, rather he forgives everything of everyone. In a similar way, the group of disciples functions both as a unity and as individuals. The many strings converge into one large knot, which also allows Dostoevsky to conceive of many issues in one plot. At the heart of Alyosha's complexity is his ability to love without judgment. Dostoevsky's point may have been in the direction of proving that universal love and forgiveness is possible. Furthermore, Alyosha's brand of forgiveness steps slightly away religious realms, and also divorces it from the realm of logic. The world is far from ideal, but is a very human mix of passion and love.

It seems to me that The Brothers Karamazov clearly calls for love, kindness and forgiveness to an extent not currently seen in society. For this reason Alyosha is the chosen hero. Everyone loves him, but he is also considered an oddity in the community. It is unclear to me, however, if Dostoevsky believes that Alyosha's brand of forgiveness is able to be repeated, or if it should remain rare. Setting Alyosha as the hero, though, suggests that the reader must learn something from him. In a way, we even enter Alyosha's path of learning.

One of Alyosha's greatest struggles comes after the death of Zosima, Alyosha's religious mentor. As Zosima's body decays, the smell allows others to gossip about his failings. The idea that Zosima was flawed greatly disturbs Alyosha. The narrator writes, “Alyosha considered this rueful day one of the most painful and fatal days of his life. If I were asked directly: 'Could all this anguish and such great perturbation have arisen in him only because, instead of beginning at once to produce healings, the body of his elder, on the contrary, showed signs of early corruptions?' I would answer without hesitation: 'Yes, indeed it was so.' I would only ask the reader not to be in too great a hurry to laugh at my young man's pure heart. Not only have I no intention of apologizing for him, of excusing and justifying his simple faith on account of his youth, for instance or the little progress he had formerly in the study of science, and so on and so forth, but I will do the opposite and declare firmly that I sincerely respect the nature of his heart. No doubt some other young man, who takes his heart's impressions more prudently, who has already learned how to love not ardently but just lukewarmly, whose thoughts, though correct, are too reasonable (and therefore cheap) for his age, such a young man, I say, would avoid what happened to my young man, but in certain cases, really, it is more honorable to yield to some passion, however unwise, if it springs from great love, than not to yield to it at all.” Simple faith and great love – are these desirable qualities in humanity? Alyosha's teachings become important to the reader also.

I keep returning to the idea of witness. Alyosha hears and sees terrible acts, but never participates. A boy bites his finger to the point of bleeding, and his response is to wonder at what wrong has been committed against the boy. Also, Alyosha is the only one who never suspects Dmitri as the murderer, despite the facts. Alyosha sets an example of a different type of reason, something empathetic, something unreasonable in contemporary society. Grushenka says that one “should love for no reason, like Alyosha”.  We often speak of heartbreaks, but I wonder if in this novel, it is as if the mind must break and the heart heal.

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Interview with an Artist

September 18, 2015

Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, recently interviewed Lea Anderson, an artist whose work, Memoryfeeld, touches upon many of the Great Ideas. The interview is posted in its entirety following a short introduction of Lea Anderson.

Lea Anderson, a San Diego native, has lived and worked in the New Mexico art community for over a decade and has discovered much during her adventures in the dramatic, colorful, and wild desert environment. Fluent in both two-and three-dimensional visual languages, she creates living, philosophical worlds that echo the formal variations seen in natural systems. These themes are explored through individual works, full-scale ambitious mixed media installations, and solo exhibitions using a wide variety of both digital and traditional media. She has exhibited throughout New Mexico and the United States, as well as internationally in Bangkok, Thailand in 2010. A recipient of numerous awards for her artwork, she was also awarded “Albuquerque Local Treasure” in 2010. In 2013, Anderson was the Guest Curator for the exhibition Flatlanders and Surface Dwellers at 516 ARTS in Albuquerque. Anderson has just completed her tenth solo exhibition, the installation piece “HOLOCENE GARDEN” with Santa Fe’s mobile gallery Axle Contemporary in Spring 2015 (4/17-5/17), and she has been invited to create an installation for the Albuquerque Museum of Art & History as their 2015 Summer Artist-in-Residence.

 

Image: Memoryfeeld, Copyright: Lea Anderson.

 

Alissa Simon (AS): I am struck by the way that humans age. We do not know exactly why organic matter weakens/degrades as it ages. Looking at a piece like Memoryfeeld, I am curious about the effect of emotion on organic matter. How do you see emotion combining with physicality in this piece?

Lea Anderson (LA): Most of us are aware that our memories fluctuate, degrade, and even re-surface over time. In Memoryfeeld, the physical materials are significant to the meaning of the piece. Each of the 1000 pieces is made using a method called “Image transfer”. Image Transfers are made using an ordinary b/w toner-based photocopy and clear acrylic gel. To get the photocopy image to transfer into the gel, I had to spread the gel (mayonnaise consistency) on top of photocopies of past images of my own artwork (to represent my personal memories). Once the gel dried, I soaked the paper/gel combination in water for a few minutes until the paper could be scraped away. The black toner was then embedded in the clear gel- and in effect, my memories were then trapped in the semi-transparent membrane-like gel pieces. One of the important things about a photocopy is that it is not an exact replica of the original - it is a simplification and a generalization – another appropriate metaphor for how we store our memories. While imprinted and stored somehow, our memories are not exact replicas of the original experiences. In Memoryfeeld, some of the individual forms are large and colorful (I added paint), some are clear, some are cloudy, some are buried, some sit on the surface, and some are incredibly tiny. This differentiation could demonstrate both the degradation of certain memories over time, or through aging, or through trauma, as well as the exaggeration or embellishment of certain memories based upon intense emotional resonance.

 

AS: The idea of love is often ennobled...meaning that humans make extra allowances for love. It appears that love ranks as a more powerful emotion than any of the other emotions. In addition, there are various types of love: mother/child, husband/wife, love of self, friendship, etc. Do you feel that your work represents an emotion of such diversity? And if so, how? Is it the sole emotion represented, or do emotions bleed into one another (desire, fear, hate, jealousy, etc)?

LA: Because each individual piece in Memoryfeeld is made using photocopies of older artwork (and segments of older artwork) that I had made over many years, there are many representations of my own experiences - love is certainly there (in certain pieces) in many forms. If I had the time, I could talk about each ‘memoryshape’ individually and reference all kinds of emotional, philosophical, and symbolic content. One of the things that may lend authenticity to this piece is that each individual component still represents a range of experiences and time periods from my past. While a memory might be experienced as a point of focus, the boundaries of where it begins and ends or what the sights/sounds/sensations that are associated with that memory are never 100% defined or even fully repeatable, even if you call up that memory again and again. Likewise, I believe no singular emotional experience is really possible, either definitively in Memoryfeeld or in our own internal collection of memories. Emotions absolutely bleed into one another, and can even change over time (our interpretation of them) as our own values or understanding of the world continues to evolve.

Image: a single memoryshape in Memoryfeeld, Copyright: Lea Anderson.

 

AS: When we create, what are we trying to create? A type of wisdom? Knowledge? Understanding? Human connection? Truth? What do you contemplate before/during creating a piece of artwork as complex as Memoryfeeld (or other works of your choice)? You demonstrate a vast emotional journey, perhaps a unique and singular journey...for what purpose? To better understand emotion? Self? Humans?

LA: Hmm. Maybe a chicken/egg question here…. I believe all of those are mixed into the recipe. While I can’t speak for all who create, I think most generally the act of creation provides an experience for the creator, and for those who encounter the creation, in order to make all of those “whats” possible. The physical/productive creative act itself is one aspect of that experience, and then the contemplation of, final function of, or interaction with the creation is another arena for more experiences. For Memoryfeeld, I can’t say that the idea was in any way fully formed when I began. I had a short time period in which to make it (6 weeks), so I had to act/produce immediately. Knowing the transfer technique was a way to produce a lot of material somewhat rapidly, I began with the technique and associated materials, and then the ideas were born as I pondered the conceptual implications of those materials. I believe most of my work begins with a general decision about materials (or for an installation piece relates to the space I’m given to create within). The development of the idea and process of actually making are intertwined. Idea development feels as though I’m attempting to solve a 100-sided, morphing Rubik’s cube, and yet I’m not really sure what the “solution” state is supposed to be. The various possibilities are turned around and around, shifted, revised, reversed, and fiddled with until I finally come to a resting point; maybe never solved as neatly as I’d like, but to a certain level of satisfaction.

What is my purpose in this creative journey? I see the creative act as a form of literal magic; of evidence that there is more to our world and existence than we can possibly understand, that there is some kind of “other” - a place, a dimension, or a source that we are feeding from, transforming energy from “there” and bringing it “here” through creativity into physical and/or virtual and/or ponder-able reality. This is true of Memoryfeeld and of all of my other works.

 

AS: How does the mind of the observer enter a complex work of art such as Memoryfeeld? Does it logically enter, and then follow a logical/reasonable path? Are logic and emotion bound together in some complex form? Is there a correct way to enter a piece of art?

LA: I do think there is an immediate physical response to Memoryfeeld. Logically, the mind of the viewer is going to associate their response with something familiar. Because Memoryfeeld is not an actual “thing” from the tangible world that anyone has seen before, they must begin to make connections to stored knowledge to interpret it. This is incredibly interesting to me, because there are an infinite amount of associations that can be made, each person filtering their visual response through their own personal Memoryfeeld and finding similarities. Any emotional response would also be connected to this set of stored associations. I’m fascinated to hear what those are, and if they are similar or completely different than what I ascribed as the original meaning in the piece. No, there is no correct way to enter a piece of art. It really depends on their cultural background, their visual sensitivity, and their learned behavior (or lack of learned behavior) around anything labeled “art”.

 

AS: As the artist, do you remove yourself from the piece of art in order to maintain symmetry? Or is it better to feel presence? Does it depend upon the piece?

LA: I assume you mean symmetry in an ideological sense, not in a visual sense, and you mean it as another word for ‘balance’ or ‘democratic ideological availability’. I believe that I am ‘in’ the piece when I look at the work, and if someone is exposed to my ideas surrounding the work then I am in the work in their understanding of it to a certain extent, but someone who doesn’t know me or my ideas about the work can access it on completely open terms. By removing/intentionally not including/distorting recognizable and potentially loaded imagery from most of my work, I assume that viewers tend to have to respond instinctively and associate more generally. Both the informed and the naive reaction are valid. It is highly unlikely that anyone would read the piece exactly as I intended it without an explanation, and that’s perfectly ok with me. Some people like to know what the artist was thinking about and some people are just as happy to find their own meaning. I think that’s an especially exciting aspect of art viewing.

 

AS: Sarah Lewis, author of The Rise of Creativity, The Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery, claims that a person's will is moved by beauty. What 'aesthetic force' (Sarah Lewis) changes us as artist and as viewer?

LA: It seems that ‘aesthetic force’ refers to a ‘powerful response’. It also seems that any discussion about the conditions that foster the creation of an ‘aesthetic force’ consistently includes the debate about the quality of ‘beauty’ as either an important ingredient in art or a quality that diminishes the legitimacy of art. I do believe that those of us using contemporary English language as our way of interpreting the world around us have come to most often connect the word beauty with the word pretty… which is frequently used as a light compliment but also quite regularly in terms of shallow or morally insubstantial. It might be true, at times, that something that is beautiful is also pretty, but I propose that we more intentionally use the word beautiful instead as a synonym for powerful. I believe that something powerful might also be pretty, but something powerful might also be horrifying, tragic, offensive, confusing, and so on. By using the adjective beautiful as a synonym for powerful rather than for pretty, then beauty can more accurately be called a necessary ingredient in art and in ‘aesthetic force’. “Power” is what changes us… beautiful Power.

For more information about Anderson's work, visit her website: http://www.leaandersonart.com/ .

For questions regarding this blog or interview, email asimon@hmu.edu.

 

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