16 November 2011

Pursuit of happiness

Scene from "Happy" by Roko Belic, courtesy Wadi Rum Pictures

I have been thinking about happiness, in preparation for our screening Sunday of Roko Belic's inspiring new documentary Happy (see details below). Happiness is one of those big subjects that can occupy an evening till late into the night, one in which the phrase "define your terms" drifts repeatedly to mind. What are we talking about when we're talking about happy?

St. Augustine's observation about time is true of happiness as well. I know what it is until someone asks me to explain it. It's a great encompassing word, describing at once an inalienable right of man and a McDonald's Happy Meal. Of what is happiness made: joy? security? love? comfort? ease? wealth? Does it take Valium? or Viagra? Each writes his or her private formula, of different constituents and proportions. Yet what we might call "true happiness" is not so subjective as to elude science entirely.  The field of "positive psychology"—the study of well-being instead of affliction—is less than fifteen years old, but in that short time researchers have reached conclusions on what constitutes the balanced sense of pleasure, engagement, and meaning that produces sustained and sustaining happiness. These findings, and how they manifest themselves around the world, are what Belic explores in Happy.

Not to spoil the movie, but come close and I'll whisper a secret: Happiness doesn't come from stuff. No TV or iPhone, yacht or home in Majorca, can in itself transmute an unhappy heart. Financial security is important, but not great wealth. Nor is fame or celebrity, style or fashion, power or beauty. Nothing our consumer culture works so hard to get us to covet is the secret ingredient.

Where does happiness come from, then? In a word, connection: the manifestation of our innate impulse toward understanding, sympathy, fellowship. This quality, and all that flows from it—curiosity, kindness, gratitude, attention—determine our individual happiness and our happiness as a society.

One important element of connectedness is the experience of feeling part of something bigger than yourself, which, among other things, also happen to be a working definition of democratic citizenship. It was this element that Jefferson invoked in the Declaration of Independence when he wrote that "the pursuit of happiness" is among humanity's inalienable rights. The great statesman was not referring to the treadmill of getting and spending when he penned these words. His use of  pursuit had nothing to do with chasing acquisitions. It was the word's other definition that interested him,  its sense of action, activity, even vocation. Similarly, when Jefferson wrote of happiness, he wasn't thinking in terms of pleasure. In the tradition of the Greek philosophers, the concept Jefferson wished to convey was closer to virtue.

To the Founders, the "pursuit of happiness" signified a calling to virtue, a calling only a free citizen could answer. Virtue, to Jefferson, was the exercise of power for the common good; the "pursuit" of  such "happiness" was something one no good man with the gift of liberty could fail to take part in.Which brings us back to connection and Roko Belic's film. I have written in this blog before about the need for a new narrative that redefines our individual and collective desires and intentions, to help us better meet the vast challenges we face together. Happy leads us in that direction, embodying the positive energy it describes and advocates.  

As I was preparing this post, I came upon a recent interview with a bestselling author. The author, a man much beloved by readers around the world, was asked the age-old, open-ended, loaded question, "Are you happy?" and without missing a beat, answered provocatively and definitively, "No!" "Are you ever happy?" he was asked again. "No," the bestselling author asserted. "I am never happy." And he went on:

It is not one of my goals to be happy. One of my goals in life was to have challenges. It was to have joy. And at the end of the day, it was to have fun, which I do have, and I'm sure you do have, in the sense that you and I were never satisfied, were never happy.  We need the next step, we need the next mountain to climb, we need to take this pebble out of our shoes and continue walking.


This obviously struck the speaker as a heroic stance, but it's not one uncommon among artists and others with a higher purpose. One encounters a similar idea in Baudelaire and Joyce, Lawrence and Dylan, and countless others who have mined the depths: happiness is a trap; it blunts your edge and blocks the entry to regions where terrible beauties dwell. This is a thorny aspect of happiness, one that gives a welcomed texture to the pursuit of the idea. Is such a compromise implied in the notion of happy? Or does a false distance exist between freedom and connection?  Roko Belic's Happy describes a potential we have in our grasp, one that, if set in motion, will transform lives. What role will, can, should artists play in that happy new world?

Happy will be screened on November 20 at 4 pm at the Opalka Gallery theater, Sage College of Albany.   After the screening, writer and educator Mary Judd, who has written extensively on positive psychology and is associated with director Roko Belic, will lead a discussion. Further information about the film is here. Directions to the screening are available at the Opalka Gallery website.


Happy - A Documentary Trailer from Wadi Rum Films on Vimeo.

11 October 2011

Attention


Many terms have been used to describe Simone Weil—philosopher, activist, teacher, spiritual leader, Jew, Christian, mystic, prophet—yet in each instance the name circumscribes as much as it reveals the essence of her existence.

Weil (pronounced veigh) was born in Paris in February,1909. Her father was a successful doctor; her mother, cultured and ambitious, was from a family of wealthy merchants. Her parents were Jewish but, in the manner of progressives throughout Europe, strictly secular. Their faith was not in God but in education. Simone and her older brother André were raised in a home without toys or other distractions. Intellectual pursuits were the chief form of pleasure. André, who grew up to become one of Europe's most brilliant mathematicians, was doing advanced geometry at the age of nine. Simone could read Greek at twelve, and taught herself Sanskrit a few years later. Both siblings were prodigies in school, but her older brother's obvious genius instilled feelings of inferiority in Simone which she carried all her life.

She was, to say the least, a sensitive child, yet her sensitivity was not that of a spoiled schoolgirl but of a compassionate conscience. In 1919, though just ten years old, she was appalled by the punitive humiliation the Treaty of Versailles inflicted on Germany at the end of World War I—a prescient objection, since the humiliating conditions gave rise to Hitler a decade later. That same year, she turned up missing in the house and was found on the boulevard marching in a labor demonstration and singing the Internationale.

Acute awareness of suffering and injustice were a defining element of her life. Though highly educated—she finished first in the entrance exams for France's highest grande ecolé—she worked in factories, vineyards, and on farms to share with workers the hardship of manual labor. Throughout her life, she gave most of her earnings to humanitarian causes and the poor. She fought on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War, but was so inept in the setting she ended up burning herself with hot cooking oil and being evacuated to a field hospital. It was one of many instances of excruciating pain and bad health she endured, including lifelong eating disorders and migraine headaches.

Through frail health and the upheavals of social activism, Simone continued to develop her personal philosophy of compassion and unfailing devotion to truth. She filled a great many notebooks with her thought, nearly all published after her death. She quickly moved away from the agnosticism of her parents toward a relationship with God that was radically spiritual and highly personal. "We do not pledge ourselves to love God," she wrote, "we give our consent to the engagement which has been formed within us in spite of ourselves."

The nature of this engagement, its meaning and practice, Weil described as attention. Attention, whole-hearted, selfless commitment to an external reality, be it picking grapes or studying Plato or alleviating suffering, was to Simone a form of prayer. Indeed, to her it amounted to our principle form of communion with God and humanity:

Twenty minutes of concentrated, untired attention is infinitely better than three hours of the kind of frowning application that leads us to say with a sense of duty done: "I have worked well!" . . . But in spite of all appearances, it is also far more difficult. Something in our soul has a far more violent repugnance for true attention than the flesh has for bodily fatigue. . . .


Not only does the love of God have attention for its substance; the love of our neighbor, which we know to be the same love, is made of this same substance. Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention. The capacity to give one's attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle, it is a miracle. . . . The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: "What are you going through?"


It was this profound ethical stance that first drew Julia Haslett to Simone Weil. "Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity," Weil wrote. Inspired, and to some extent goaded, by the quotation's insistence, Haslett embarked on a six-year journey investigating the author of the idea and how one might apply it amid the myriad and endless sufferings of the 21st-century. The result is Haslett's extraordinary new film, An Encounter with Simone Weil, which is part bio-pic and part personal essay on the meaning of compassion, activism, care, and attention. Haslett's film engages courageously with the densities of existence, its quandaries, suffering, lack of clear solutions. It confronts what Weil called "the sacramental concept of the good," exploring questions of "moral and spiritual responsibility."

An Encounter with Simone Weil achieves this without a moment's preaching or evangelizing, through the sustained act of attending. Like Weil herself, Haslett's central motive is a quest for synthesis of the personal and eternal. The film suggests a more vital description of its subject and heroine. Weil, beyond the inventory of descriptions at the top of the post, was above all a spirit on fire. She died in exile in England at the end of World War II, just thirty-four years old. Her soul continues to cast light.





 

30 September 2011

Helen Benedict to read

The press release for the reading Helen Benedict will give from her new novel Sand Queen, October 23 at 4 pm, at the Opalka Gallery, Sage College of Albany. Helen was the subject of a blog post on these pages a few weeks ago, which included an interview and excerpt; to learn more, follow the links to that earlier post, to the interview with the author, and an excerpt of the novel.

Author Helen Benedict to read from Sand Queen, her new novel about women soldiers in Iraq, at Opalka Gallery October 23
Author and journalist Helen Benedict will read from her new novel Sand Queen on Sunday, October 23 at 4 p.m. at the Opalka Gallery on the Sage College of Albany campus. The reading, hosted by The Sage Colleges in collaboration with the Creative Arts Therapy Program, the Center for Documentary Arts, and Women Against War, is held in conjunction with the exhibit Windows and Mirrors: Reflections on the War in Afghanistan. The reading is free and open to the public.

Benedict will conduct a seminar on women in war the following day, October 24, at 11 a.m. in Bush Memorial, on the Russell Sage College campus in Troy. The seminar is also opened to the public. 

Sand Queen follows two women whose lives intersect at the beginning of the Iraq War. Kate Brady is a 19-year-old US soldier stationed at a make-shift prison in the Iraqi desert, and Naema Jassim is an Iraqi medical student fighting to keep her family intact. Kate, the book’s heroine, joined the Army to bring honor to her family, but instead finds herself threatened both by the prisoners she guards and the men she serves with. Sand Queen exposes the brutality, hardship, and humiliation faced by women in the US military, while also revealing the humor and courage women on both sides of the battlefield use to endure war’s violence and destruction.

Pulitzer Prize novelist Robert Olen Butler praised Sand Queen as, “an important book by one our finest literary artists.”

“Every war eventually yields works of art which transcend politics and history and illuminate our shared humanity,” wrote Butler. “Helen Benedict’s brilliant new novel has done just that with this century’s American war in Iraq.” Kirkus Reviews called the novel “[an] unforgettable testament,” and the Boston Globe proclaimed, “This is The Things They Carried for women in Iraq ... feels right and true.”

Benedict is author of five previous novels and five books of nonfiction, and is a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Her 2009 nonfiction book The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq, roused alarm in the Pentagon and Congress with its descriptions of the physical and emotional distress women face the military. Following the book’s publication, Benedict testified twice before Congress on behalf of women soldiers.

What Benedict learned writing Lonely Soldier became the foundation for Sand Queen. “I came to realize,” Benedict said, “even after interviewing more than 40 women who served in the Iraq War and doing a lot of other research too, that there was more to say—an internal, private story of war that lay in the soldiers’ silences, jokes, and tears. Those moments are closed to the journalist, but they are exactly where fiction can go.”

The reading is hosted by The Sage Colleges’ Creative Arts Therapy Program, in conjunction with Windows and Mirrors: Reflections on the War in Afghanistan, a traveling exhibit of 25 murals depicting the war in Afghanistan through the eyes of artists around the world. The exhibit was created and is being toured nationally by the American Friends Service Committee. Showings at both the Sage College of Albany and Russell Sage College are coordinated by Women Against War, a Capital District organization dedicated to peace. The exhibit will be on display at the Opalka Gallery, on Sage’s Albany campus, October 22-23, and at the Schacht Fine Arts Center on the Troy campus, October 24-28.

Benedict’s appearance was arranged through the Center for Documentary Arts as part of its ongoing series of film screenings, readings, and artist appearances. The Center for Documentary Arts, which is hosted by The Sage Colleges, is a not-for-profit cultural organization founded to raise humanitarian awareness and support compassion-in-action.


25 September 2011

Film Screening: An Encounter with Simone Weil



The following is a press release for the Center's upcoming screening of Julia Haslett's exquisite documentary An Encounter with Simone Weil. For more about Simone Weil and Julia Haslett, see my post here.

Quest for a compassionate life is subject of film to be screened
at Opalka Gallery October 16

Dialogue with director Julia Haslett follows exclusive presentation of her 
acclaimed documentary An Encounter with Simone Weil

Acclaimed director Julia Haslett will lead a discussion following the screening of her new documentary An Encounter with Simone Weil on Sunday, October 16 at 4 p.m. at the Opalka Gallery at the Sage College of Albany. The exclusive Capital Region screening and discussion is organized by the Center for Documentary Arts at The Sage Colleges and the Opalka Gallery. The event is opened to the public.

An Encounter with Simone Weil is a moving portrait of French philosopher, educator, and activist Simone Weil (1909-1943), who spent most of her too-short life advocating for the socially and politically disadvantaged. Using Weil’s writings and teachings, Haslett tells the dramatic story of an extraordinary young woman whose decision to act on her convictions led her into hardship and spiritual revelation. In her quest to understand Weil (pronounced “veigh”), filmmaker Julia Haslett confronts profound personal questions about her own moral responsibility toward society at large and her family.

Haslett begins with Weil’s belief that, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” With this quotation as the film’s moral center, Weil’s extraordinary biography is revealed through archival film shot during her lifetime, previously unseen family photos, and modern footage of places she lived and worked, as well as interviews with key people connected to Weil. Haslett then uses Weil’s experience as a framework for her own life, including intimate vérité footage of the filmmaker’s family and personal hardships. Drawing on current news and observational footage, Haslett’s narration draws provocative comparisons between Weil’s insight and the world today. The result: a deeply moving and unique film that questions what it means to bear witness to suffering, and plumbs the quest to live a compassionate life.

Filmmaker Michael Moore chose An Encounter with Simone Weil for a Special Founders Prize at the 2011 Traverse City Film Festival. The documentary was also an official selection at the prestigious Full Frame Documentary Festival earlier this year.

In her brief life, Simone Weil (1909-1943) fought in the Spanish Civil War, worked as a machine operator and farm laborer, debated Trotsky, and was part of the French Resistance. The daughter of affluent Jewish parents, she spent her life advocating for the poor and disenfranchised in France and for colonized people around the world, bravely organizing and writing on their behalf. A consummate outsider, who distrusted ideologies of any kind, Weil left behind a body of work that fills fifteen volumes and established her as a brilliant political, social, and spiritual thinker.

In her writings, she analyzed power and its dehumanizing effects, outlined a doctrine of empathy for human suffering, and critiqued Stalinism long before most of the French left-wing. She believed intellectual work should be combined with physical work, and that theories should evolve from close observation and direct experience. And, after three Christian mystical experiences, she began grappling with religious faith, its role in human history, and the shortcomings of organized religion. Her ideas have influenced countless people, including Susan Sontag, Graham Greene, and T.S. Eliot. The New York Times described her as “one of the most brilliant and original minds of twentieth-century France.” But by far her biggest advocate was the existentialist philosopher Albert Camus, who played a major role in getting her work published after her death.

“I made this film for personal and political reasons,” says director Haslett. “The questions it poses are fundamental and the stakes it raises are quite literally life or death. The film can take a while to sink in, but my idealistic hope is that once it does, it will bring a little more compassion into the world.”

Haslett will discuss the making of the film, and answer audience questions, immediately following the screening. The one-time-only showing will be in the theater of the Opalka Gallery on the campus of the Sage College of Albany, 140 New Scotland Road. Parking is free on campus. Admission is $5, free for Sage students with a valid ID.


The screening and discussion are a presentation of the Opalka Gallery and the Center for Documentary Arts, as part of the 2011 MoHu Festival of Arts. The event inaugurates the Center’s ongoing series of film screenings, readings, and artist appearances featuring narratives of hope, dignity, and compassion that can transform individual lives and impact collective experience.


“I am extremely pleased to host Julia Haslett,” said Timothy Cahill, director of the Center for Documentary Arts. “Simone Weil, and Julia’s film about her, embody the values of ethical engagement and artistic excellence the Center for Documentary Arts stands for.”

The Center for Documentary Arts, hosted by The Sage Colleges, is a not-for-profit cultural organization founded in 2009 to raise humanitarian awareness and foster compassion. Last year, the Center mounted the photography exhibit Battlesight: Dispatches from Iraq and Afghanistan by International Photographers at the Arts Center of the Capital Region.


11 September 2011

Ten Years On


I have been staying away from the television news this week, knowing as we approached the tenth anniversary of 9/11 that to watch TV would be to subject myself to repeated images of that airliner flying into the World Trade Center. Even as I write this, that horrifying vision revives itself and brings me back to that crystalline Tuesday morning in 2001. It had started so sweetly, taking my nine-year-old son to school, then turned suddenly bizarre when, just before 9, BBC radio reported an aircraft had hit one of the Twin Towers. This made me turn on the television, just in time to witness the second plane slice onto the screen and vanish in an orange fireball.

In the next ninety minutes, the first act of our decade-long tragedy unfolded: the Pentagon, the Pennsylvania field, the unimaginable collapse of the towers. The scale of the catastrophe was fathomless. The uncertainty of what was happening, dismaying. Around 9:30, I went to my newspaper job, where I was way past deadline with the lead feature for that Sunday's arts section.  One had to feed the beast, so as the world disintegrated around me (literally; I could see a television screen in every direction from my newsroom desk), I dutifully struggled to complete a story about the opening of the new wing of a local museum. The disconnect was prodigious.

I wonder, though, how much more fully present I would have been had I not been distracted by my suddenly superfluous task. It was a morning of numbing shock and awe for everyone, beyond processing.  And while I lived through it and paid attention, I'm not sure I've yet woken up from the nightmare of all that has followed, never fully demarcated the facts and their significance. I doubt that I or anyone of my generation will. The chain of events set in motion by the attacks carry meanings that will only reveal themselves over decades, perhaps even centuries. We who are still steadying ourselves in their wake cannot completely understand them, and it is this impossibility of comprehension that makes what occurred on September 11 so fraught with peril and potential.

Since we place significance on anniversaries of the same measure as our money (ten, fifty, one hundred, etc.), this year—this day—is our first opportunity for deep, collective reflection on the meaning of 9/11. Of necessity, that reflection must be elegiac. Not only is our memory of that day too fresh; the wound remains open. America still bleeds, in Afghanistan and Iraq, as do peoples of other nations in battle zones and drone attacks, Guantanamo cells and dark holes we know nothing of.

Since 9/11, we have done little to heal our nation or the world.  Ten years ago, after a pitifully brief period of collective mourning, the US set out to salve its grief with vengeance. Anger at such an attack is natural and appropriate, and the human mind is wired for retribution. Ideals of justice were devised long ago by men who understood the need for trial and punishment. America has from time to time attempted to emulate such ideals, but our bloody legacy of revenge and reprisal, from the burning of Atlanta to the firebombing of Dresden to the assassination of bin Laden, overpowers our better angels. Only in Nuremberg, when the US insisted on trying Nazi war criminals rather than summarily executing them (as the British wished), have we, in extremis, shown a prejudice toward law over wrath.

America is a country built as much on force and the will to power as tolerance and freedom. We are not, as our politicians occasionally warble at us, a peace-loving people. We groove on exerting strength. President Bush, in his address to the world on 9/11, was most himself when speaking of revenge. The Pentagon was still smoldering as Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense, tasked aides to find a connection to Saddam Hussein that would justify military action in Iraq. The impulse to war was swift and sadly natural. As was, internally, the transition to lock-down and control. How quickly we accepted heightened surveillance and the intimidation of authority on our lives.

A vision of the US as a quasi-police state emerged in our language. At some point early in the aftermath of 9/11, the President began to refer to America as "the homeland," unconcerned that the term was rank with echoes of Nazi Germany and totalitarianism generally. The German word vaterland, which means much the same thing as "homeland," was used to stoke German nationalism during World War I, and adopted by Hitler's propaganda machine in the years preceding the Holocaust. It calls upon messianic patriotism über alles, over reason, over human rights, over liberty, over mercy. Fatherland, motherland, homeland—these are terms abhorrent to any notion of individual dignity or freedom, but ones perfectly fitted to a mentality of authoritarianism. We now live under the vigilant gaze of Homeland Security which, like the mythical Argus,  never sleeps. Indeed, the exponential use of security cameras in every realm of our existence makes the hundred-eyed Greek giant seem ill-equipped. When we pass through the airport, surveillance is conducted by the hardened agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement; to paraphrase Robert Frost, some say freedom will end in fire, some say in ICE. We can't board an airplane without being X-rayed or patted down, and to get into the US, friends from other countries must agree to being treated like criminal suspects and submit to fingerprinting and retinal scans.

Such coercive authority, like all forms of absolutism, grows out of self-deception and enlarges it. We as a nation have yet to collectively explore why we were attacked, as if the answer doesn't matter, or simply raising the query is an affront to decency. So much easier to label what happened on 9/11 evil—a malevolence beyond our ken or control to which the only response is counterattack. But our enemies are nothing so simple as mere "evil-doers"; they are zealous, cunning men with grievances and hatreds. To understand their motives is not to shift responsibility away from their crimes, but simply to exert wisdom. Sages have long taught us that our nemesis has much to teach us about ourself.  The mightier the foe, the greater the opportunity for enlightenment.

What does the past expect from us?

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the world came together in grief, mourning, hope. There were murmurs of a new beginning in the US, of the end of an era of cynicism and self-interest and the dawning of greater thoughtfulness and compassion. Seven years later, after that optimistic vision was dashed by hapless war and delusional wealth, it rose again with the election of Barack Obama. He has yet to prove he is equal to the dream, but the world remains weary for change. It is pent up with anguish and aspiration. There are those who believe humanity is in the midst of an evolutionary transformation as momentous as our shift from Neanderthal to homo sapiens; who sense, in everything from quantum physics to neuroscience to astrology, the emergence of a global awakening. This intimation of limitless change—not progress but metamorphosis—has been steadily increasing since the 1960s, and we are by now in the third or fourth generation of people who feel it imminent.

If I did not believe this myself, I would not have started the organization that supports this blog. I do not expect anything magical to happen tomorrow, don't think our fate is controlled by the Mayan calendar, am not waiting for the 2012 arrival of Quetzalcoatl, and have doubts that Next Age global "summits" will in themselves affect great change. And yet all such energy moves us toward an awakening around the world, one stirred as much by the awareness that we share a tiny planet with finite resources as by metaphysical epiphany. We must reform ourselves or perish. If indeed we are part of an evolution of consciousness, the fact that this notion has been around fifty years is not cause for cynicism or proof we're waiting for Godot. Quite the opposite. It means we stand at the beginning of something we may not achieve in our lifetime, just as the great grandfather who plants the tree never sees it in its mighty, shade-giving splendor.

What has this to do with the anniversary of 9/11? Everything, I insist. Because after the cruel destruction of that day and the bloodshed and devastation that followed, the one incontrovertible truth these events have demonstrated is that aggression never works. Not in the long run. It will not affect the change you imagine and cannot set you free. Aggression is slavery, and if we are not to destroy ourselves as a race we must, must, must reject it. We must rise above our baser instincts for viciousness and violence and accept our human capacity to cooperate, to collaborate, to experience empathy and feel compassion. Love—only love—is the hope at the bottom of Pandora's box.

So I will not subject myself to pictures of airplanes flying into buildings today, because that is a history we must purge ourselves of. I don't mean we should forget what happened ten years ago. But the past can gain no meaning when we simply replay it for dramatic effect. There is a residual light from the what-has-been that shines for our eyes. It illuminates a new narrative, which lies ahead.





Jean Alaux, Pandora Descending to Earth with Mercury, public domain
German WWI recruitment poster, public domain
Théodore Géricault, Trumpeter of the Hussars on Horseback, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute 

16 August 2011

Sand Queen

Once the ruckus has died down and we've left the guys to untie Mack, which they don't do till he's seriously late for his shift, we females douse off our running sweat with bottled water, ignoring the shouts of "Wet T-shirt time!" and take out our T-Rats. Morning is the only time I can really chow down, before the heat and my nerves get too bad—if you can call T-Rations chow. Tubes of green eggs that shake like a fat lady's flab, mushes of unidentifiable—well, mush. I shovel it all in anyway, needing the strength. Then we're off to our squads, and that's the last I'll see of another female till tonight—an American female, that is.

By the time my team arrives at the checkpoint, not only are the usual civilians already there, but I see that girl Naema right away, too. I'm heading over to say hi when Kormick barks, "Brady!" At least he didn't call me Tits or Pinkass.  [Read more]

So begins another day in Iraq for US soldier Kate Brady, the heroine of Helen Benedict's powerful new novel, Sand Queen. Heroine may be entirely the wrong word for this teenager thrust into a world of brutality she can neither comprehend nor control, particularly in carrying out the unpleasant duties of a dubious foreign policy. As we follow nineteen-year-old Kate through the inferno of the Iraq War, we are repeatedly reminded that the most heroic labor a soldier may undertake is to survive the experience with her soul intact.

I met Helen Benedict last month when we both participated in the Festival of Writers at Rensselaerville, New York. I was showing photographs from the exhibit Battlesight and Helen read from Sand Queen, both of which describe the horrors and ambiguities of the war in Iraq. Our work was the common ground from which we embarked on a rich journey of ideas and observations.

Helen is the author of six novels and five books of nonfiction, which she teaches at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Her novels, quoting from Wikipedia, "explore the themes of displacement, isolation, racism, and sexism, often through the eyes of people who fall outside the predominant culture." Helen has written extensively about the effect of warfare on those who fight, in particular women in the US armed forces. In 2009, she published The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq,  a nonfiction book profiling five women's experiences in the military. Lonely Soldier exposed the indignity, injustice, abuse, and neglect women endure when they place themselves in service to their country. Much of the mistreatment is sexual and sexist, including seduction by recruiters, harassment and rape by fellow soldiers and superiors, and contempt from commanders. These, on top of the pressures all soldiers face—the harshness of day-to-day existence, the atrocities of the battlefield, the estrangement, dislocation, and trauma of life back home.

The Lonely Soldier is one of those books that makes your anger rise the deeper into it you go. It cast a bright light on sexual abuse in the armed forces and raised the awareness of the public and the authorities. In its wake, Helen lectured at military academies and testified twice before Congress on behalf of women soldiers. Her achievement as a journalist gave her standing as an expert and influenced policy.

Having written the book, having sat before Congress, even having adapted the material into a play, however, Helen knew the work was not complete. The complexity of the subject was more than nonfiction could contain, she told me. At that point, we had entered the sphere that animates this site and the Center for Documentary Arts—a sphere where art conveys truths that lie beyond facts.  Aestheticizing reality is often the only way to fully express it. The outrages and attacks Kate Brady suffers in Sand Queen are much the same as those described in Lonely Soldier, but for the reader the experience is far more intimate and painful. 

"I came to realize," Helen said in an interview we did together, "even after interviewing more than forty women who served in the Iraq War and doing a lot of other research too, that there was more to say—an internal, private story of war that lay in the soldiers’ silences, jokes, and tears. Those moments are closed to the journalist, but they are exactly where fiction can go."

She expanded on this point in an essay "Why I Wrote a War Novel," in On the Issues Magazine:

I wanted to tell that hidden story, but I knew much of it lay beyond what these women were willing or even able to say aloud. Some couldn't speak because they didn't have the words, some were too afraid, others too proud, and yet others too ashamed. . . . So I turned to fiction, where I could combine my interviews, research and imagination to fill in those silences and get to the uncensored story of war -- to how it really feels to be in a war day in and day out, from the long stretches of boredom to the worst moments of violence, and all that happens in the minutes, hours and months in between.




Sand Queen achieves this through the voice of Kate Brady, an innocent who joins the military in search of honor and finds instead cruelty that ranges from brutish to sadistic, a viciousness expressed physically, psychologically, psychically, existentially. As the novel begins, we meet Kate already affected by the experience, having adjusted to the barbarism by adopting it against her nature. The reader follows her as she wades ever deeper into this transformation, experiencing its effect through her senses and understanding it through her developing awareness. 


Briefly, Kate's destiny crosses with that of an Iraqi medical student called Naema Jassim, whose family has been driven out of their Baghdad home only to have her father and brother imprisoned in an American raid. The novel cuts between the two women as their paths converge and separate and each endures her own descent into the maelstrom. The journey is harsh, as the excerpt at the beginning of this post suggests, and there were times I had to put the book down and reset. Yet nothing is gratuitous or played for sensation in the book. Never does the suffering seem anything but authentic, making it all the more gutting.


Helen and Soho Press have kindly allowed me to run an extended excerpt of the novel here; you can find it and my interview with the author on the Helen Benedict page at the top of the blog. The conviction of the Center for Documentary Arts is that certain artworks call us to higher awareness and deeper connection to the world. When I speak of the "documentary arts," I am thinking of a novel like Sand Queen as much as the reportage of the Battlesight photographers. It matters not if the art is factual or imaginative, narrative or lyric, unsettling or inspiring. Truth has many guises, but speaks in one voice

06 August 2011

Evelyn Glennie



Evelyn Glennie is a virtuoso percussionist who has been profoundly deaf since age 12. She is an incandescent artist who continually expands one's capacity for wonder. This TED talk, recorded in 2003, reinterprets the act of listening, opening pathways for experiencing sound with one's whole body and being. It concludes with a sublime performance.


Photo: James Wilson/©Evelyn Glennie

15 July 2011

Festival of Writers


The Center for Documentary Arts will participate in the Rensselaerville Festival of Writers with an exhibition of selections from Battlesight: Dispatches From Iraq and Afghanistan by International Photographers at the Way Out Gallery, Main Street, Rensselaerville, NY. The Festival of Writers takes place July 28-31 in the Albany County hamlet of Rensselaerville and will include readings, workshops, book signings and more with such luminaries as Helen Benedict, Nick Flynn, Verlyn Klinkenborg, Francine Prose, and others. Battlesight features the work of photographers Cheryl Diaz Meyer, Balazs Gardi, and Teru Kuwayama. A gallery reception on Friday, July 28, from 5 to 7 pm, will be followed on Saturday morning with a public conversation on journalism, ethics, and the meaning of war photography with Pulitzer-Prize journalist Josh Friedman and Documentary Center director and exhibit curator Timothy Cahill. The Battlesight page on this blog has more about the exhibit.



Way Out Gallery installation views

29 June 2011

It Is All One Water



This short film by New Zealand artist and writer  Claire Beynon has been accepted into the Possible Futures Film Contest, an international competition challenging storytellers of the world to create a new vision for the future of humanity. The aim of the films and the contest is to redefine our relationships to human justice, environmental sustainability, peace, and individual fulfillment.

Using footage shot at Explorer's Cove, Antarctica and around Dunedin, on New Zealand's South Island, It Is All One Water reflects the director's long-running response to the ocean as a symbol for the elemental interdependence of life. This new film is a mysterious and beautiful addition to that work. The director twice collaborated on ArtScience projects in Antarctica with biologist Sam Bowser, and the footage here reflects ideas she explored there, introducing artist-made objects into the polar environment. The results are often spellbinding, as the objects — a small boat and a leaf-like porcelain sculpture — seem at once to surrender to the sea and dialogue with it. This is a potent metaphor for an alternative relationship to the one we've been having with the world's oceans, the BP oil disaster and on-going radiation contamination by the Fukushima nuclear plant being just two recent examples. The film's soundtrack combines original music by South African composer Chris Tokalon and narration by CB of a poem composed by herself with contributions from five poets in the US and NZ. This spirit of collaboration is integral to the film's meaning. 

27 June 2011

Cave of Souls

I am just back from Werner Herzog's extraordinary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, his exploration, visually and philosophically, of the Chauvet cave in southern France. There, in 1994, a collection of prehistoric art was discovered by three explorers who found a small opening in a cliff and soon were face-to-face with an almost unfathomable array of paintings. The French government immediately closed access to the cave to all but a select group of scientists and historians. Herzog's film, presented in vivid 3-D, is the closest any of us is likely to get to the art.


The paintings in Chauvet are more than 30,000 years old, making them nearly twice as old as those in Lascaux or Altamira, Europe's other great caches of Paleolithic art. They were made by our Cro-Magnon ancestors, literally at the dawn of Homo sapiens. When the paintings were created, Neanderthal man was not yet extinct.


The implications of this are profound, suggesting there is no gap between the emergence of modern man and the appearance of artistic expression. Art is intrinsic to our being. Imagination shaped our identity.

  
Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the paintings is their realism. The creatures in Chauvet are rendered with a remarkable level of detail and precision that Herzog's 3-D cameras richly reveal. The Chauvet artists expressed volume and mass with a highly sophisticated sense of modeling and chiaroscuro. There is a precise balance to the animals, even a kind of poise, and a sense of movement suggested through posture and the repetition of limbs or horns, almost a proto-animation. By far the most moving element of the paintings are the animal's eyes, which, through careful rendering of shape and size and gradation of light, seem filled with life, and an awareness that occasionally borders on pathos.


Throughout the picture Herzog describes the images as paintings, but I kept regarding them also as drawings, which raised an interesting thought. In the Renaissance there was a philosophical distinction between painting and drawing; painting being the expression of immediate, fleeting perception, drawing the contemplation of essence. Drawing was more than the definition of form; it was a revelation of underlying principles. There are moments in Chauvet when the same insight seems to be at work. Far from merely recording reality, these cave artists seem to probe it, and have already begun interrogating the meaning of life.


That this appears to be true, that from our earliest days art has been a way we created meaning, is suggested in the cave's most provocative image, dubbed by archeologists the Minotaur. The picture, drawn on a suspended pendant of rock, depicts a bison embracing a female figure. The naked woman, the only human depiction throughout the massive cave, evokes paleolithic carvings of Venuses, those primal effigies of sexuality, fertility, creation. The Chauvet Venus is represented only by her pubic triangle and legs, slightly spread. The bison appears to enfold her in an attitude of tenderness, contemplation, and what can only be described as wonder. Gazing at this picture is like being present at the birth of myth, the emergence of the collective unconscious.



This is the miracle revealed in Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Along with an astounding treasury of human ingenuity, Herzog's film presents us with the earliest expressions of our soul.

25 June 2011

A Candle for Christchurch

On February 21, a disastrous earthquake struck Christchurch, New Zealand, the country's second largest city. More than 180 people perished, great swaths of the city were damaged, thousands of people were uprooted, and much of the central business district was destroyed and is in the process of being demolished. The quake attracted the world's attention for three weeks, until Japan was devastated by an even more severe earthquake, tsunami, and ongoing nuclear disaster.


Since then, there has been almost no news about Christchurch in the US, leaving the impression that it's all over there but the clean-up. In fact, the city has been beset by an almost continual pattern of aftershocks, temblors, and convulsions these past four months. In some parts of the city water and electric service remain fragile. Residents have proved amazingly resilient, but the emotional toll of living under such conditions must be beyond imaging.  On June 13, the city was rocked by two more quakes, one equal in magnitude to the February event.


Three days ago, on 21 June, Christchurch residents were settling into their longest night, the winter solstice, when still another earthquake hit, once more knocking out power to a population with frayed nerves and strained resources.


The human story always lies beyond the headlines, in the day-to-day struggle to survive, endure, build, and rebuild. Remember the people of Christchurch, that their nightmare will soon come to an end. If you pray, include them in your prayers. If you light candles, touch a flame to a wick. If you drink, raise a glass to better days. No action is lost to the universe.

Claire Beynon, Candles for Christchurch

Christchurch photos (3), New Zealand Herald

26 May 2011

Unity is our essence


At the same time, however, the relationship to the world that ... modern science fostered and shaped now appears to have exhausted its potential. It is increasingly clear that, strangely, the relationship is missing something. It fails to connect with the most intrinsic nature of reality and with natural human experience. It is now more of a source of disintegration and doubt than a source of integration and meaning. It produces what amounts to a state of schizophrenia: Man as an observer is becoming completely alienated from himself as a being.—Vaclav Havel


It is becoming clear to almost anyone who thinks critically about it that science as we have long understood it is no longer equipped to address the challenges of the future. This is not to say that researchers and innovators in laboratories around the world may never come up with a carbon-neutral replacement for gasoline or a safe way to dispose of nuclear waste, or that the age of medical breakthroughs is behind us. But the notion of traditional science as the dynamo of something called "progress" feels pretty much used up. Utopian visions of societies operating justly and efficiently on the ball bearings of technology are artifacts of the past, and there isn't a school child alive who doesn't see that the old mechanistic ideas of scientific thought are as responsible for our current crises, human and environmental, as they were useful in eradicating the pestilences of old.


We are in the midst of an unmistakable evolution of consciousness toward higher orders of compassion, cooperation, and love. This statement may seem willfully foolish given the intractable woe that exists everywhere, be it warfare, displacement, human trafficking, state-sanctioned rape, mass poverty, or any of the other countless horrors around the globe. Yet life is governed by laws of polarity, and the more monstrous humanity behaves, the more urgent becomes its need and response. The rise in a collective movement toward compassion is inspired in part by the crises of sustainability we as a race and a planet face. As populations grow and the biosphere depletes, as resources dwindle and distorted power structures appear to exploit them, people in every part of the world are waking up to the failure of the old systems and the imperative for a new way based on different values.

In this regard, the age of science as both ideology and faith must give way to something more humanistic and humane. Science as a model for how to engage and steward life has proven fatally flawed. Instead of empiricism's simplistic cosmology of predictable and controllable cause and effect, we live in a world of chaos, collateral damage, and unintended consequences. There are those who still believe human intellect, with the aid of supercomputers and nuclear microscopes, can think its way out of the labyrinth of life's ever-creative repertoire of complexity. Beside them, however, is an ever-growing movement turning instead to the intelligence of the heart, our remarkable fist-sized blood pump which is also the seat of our courage, kindness, and boundless power of love.

None of what I have written is in any way a repudiation of science per se, nor a turning away from its core value of discovery. Nor are the sentiments of Vaclav Havel, in the address quoted at the top of this post. This extraordinary speech, given in Philadelphia on Independence Day, July 4, 1994, was a prescient early expression of the awareness that has grown in the seventeen years since he spoke. I think there are good reasons for suggesting that the modern age has ended," Havel said that day. "Today, many things indicate that we are going through a transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out, and something else is painfully being born. It is as if something were crumbling, decaying, and exhausting itself, while something else, still indistinct, were rising from the rubble.”

The thing "rising from the rubble" is a greater understanding of the connection between observation and being, scientific law and human integrity, existence and love. "Inspiration for the renewal of [our] lost integrity," Havel said, "can once again be found in science, in a science that is new—let us say postmodern—a science producing ideas that in a certain sense allow it to transcend its own limits."

The idea that such a science is at hand forms the foundation for Tom Shadyac's documentary I Am. The film chronicles Shadyac's exploration of the new paradigm, conducted through interviews with leading intellectuals, scientists, and writers. By the end, the director discovers that, indeed, the world's great wisdom traditions had it right—we are all connected, and our connectedness is at the heart of our humanity. He sets his course not by religion or philosophy, however, but by conclusions gained from quantum physics, neuropsychology, evolutionary biology, environmental studies, and noetic science, the emerging study of the interface of consciousness and matter.


Shadyac begins by going back to Darwin, whose concepts of natural selection were popularized to assert the influence of competition  over caring, a claim that was quickly extended into the spurious realm of "social Darwinism." Darwin made no such cultural claims himself, and many after him have observed that successful mutual aid among animals and humans is as much a definition of "fitness" as individual dominion. The idea that humans are wired as much to cooperate as compete has been bolstered by the discovery of mirror neurons, tiny brain receptors that make empathy possible, and the action of the vagus nerve (actually a pair of nerves) which, when we witness an act of kindness, releases oxytocin, a hormone related to nurturing and orgasm.


Shadyac ups the ante when he visits the Institute of HeartMath, a research organization that has, through controlled experiments, amassed evidence that the heart truly is one of the body's centers of intelligence. One of the film's memorable moments comes when the director's negative emotions apparently cause a dish of yogurt to emit its own negative feedback. It's the humorous illustration of a serious point, that emotions are physiological as well as psychological, and that kind thoughts alone can impact the behavior of others. I Am evokes the notion of quantum entanglement—the fact that atoms at an infinite distance react to certain stimuli simultaneously—to demonstrate the level at which all living stuff is quite literally connected. There is no separation, not of distance or time; in tracking the inert element argon, a part of earth's atmosphere, scientists have even concluded that we all breath the same air, and have since time out of mind. 


The conclusion is inescapable: unity is our essence. This idea is supported by a growing weight of fact, and to believe it is no longer the stance of the dreamer, but of the enlightened thinker. This is Shadyac's conclusion and his film's manifesto. The movie ends by asking how we can change society; the answer: through a change in consciousness. Knowledge is transformational. Shifts in awareness produce changes in attitude. The process is natural and inevitable.


Here is where the artist becomes key. Artists, with their ability to express the subtlest and most complex truths, are called now to the forefront of the new consciousness, called to clarify, to illuminate, and to express. What is "art for art's sake" beside this vocation? The Dalai Lama, asked to name the most important meditation of our age, answered, "critical thinking followed by action." More persuasive than propaganda, this is how art will change the world. 


Michelangelo, Phaeton, British Museum
Vaclav Havel, c. 1990, Council of Europe

03 May 2011

"I Will Not Rejoice in the Death of One"

In the aftermath of the US killing of Osama bin Laden, a quote attributed to Martin Luther King has been making the rounds in cyberspace. Here's how it came to me via Facebook:

Shared from a friend: MLK expresses the ideal: "I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that." -Martin Luther King Jr.

Curious to know when and in what context King said something so startlingly congruent with my own feelings today, I went — where else? — to Google. But all I could find were variations of the quote, disembodied from any larger source.

Then I found this, by Megan McArdle of the Atlantic: Out of Osama's Death, a Fake Quotation is Born. "Something about it just strikes me as off," McArdle says about the quote. She goes on to assert she can't find the quote anywhere on the Internet, and concludes it was made up.



But not so fast. Sifting through the rubble we call the World Wide Web, I found evidence that contradicted McArdle, at least to an extent. Someone referenced a passage from King's book Strength to Love, a collection of meditations on nonviolence he published in 1963. In a chapter titled "Loving Your Enemies," King did express at least part of the quote. Here's the section, which follows a discussion of the differing Greek terms for love, erosphila, and the one King is interested in, agape, which he defines as "creative, redemptive goodwill for all men." I took a screenshot of the text from Google Books:


So the quote making the rounds isn't entirely specious. Intrigued now with what else the Internet would yield, I dug a bit deeper and discovered an earlier evocation of the same idea by King, using much the same language. On Martin Luther King Online, I found the text of a sermon the master preacher delivered November 17, 1957, also titled "Loving Your Enemies." The passage in question comes up in the lesson of a modern parable:


I think I mentioned before that sometime ago my brother and I were driving one evening to Chattanooga, Tennessee, from Atlanta. He was driving the car. And for some reason the drivers were very discourteous that night. They didn’t dim their lights; hardly any driver that passed by dimmed his lights. And I remember very vividly, my brother A. D. looked over and in a tone of anger said: "I know what I’m going to do. The next car that comes along here and refuses to dim the lights, I’m going to fail to dim mine and pour them on in all of their power." And I looked at him right quick and said: "Oh no, don’t do that. There’d be too much light on this highway, and it will end up in mutual destruction for all. Somebody got to have some sense on this highway."
Somebody must have sense enough to dim the lights, and that is the trouble, isn’t it? That as all of the civilizations of the world move up the highway of history, so many civilizations, having looked at other civilizations that refused to dim the lights, and they decided to refuse to dim theirs. And Toynbee tells that out of the twenty-two civilizations that have risen up, all but about seven have found themselves in the 
junkheap of destruction. It is because civilizations fail to have sense enough to dim the lights. And if somebody doesn’t have sense enough to turn on the dim and beautiful and powerful lights of love in this world, the whole of our civilization will be plunged into the abyss of destruction. And we will all end up destroyed because nobody had any sense on the highway of history. Somewhere somebody must have 
some sense. Men must see that force begets force, hate begets hate, toughness begets toughness. And it is all a descending spiral, ultimately ending in destruction for all and everybody. Somebody must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and the chain of evil in the universe. And you do that by love.
So this concept of darkness begetting darkness, hate begetting hate, was an idea MLK had been developing over the years, borrowing from and slightly modifying his phrasing as he went along. Knowing this, I'm not at all sure King did not say the words quoted by my Facebook friend. He may well have spoken them, and if he did, my guess is it would have been near the end of his life, when he had turned his attention to broader issues of peace and justice, and was speaking out against the Vietnam War. Gut feeling.
All this is by way of broaching the larger issue, which is how to feel in the wake of Osama bin Laden's swift and sudden death. And in this I find myself torn. Viscerally, I cannot regret bin Laden's fate. Not long ago, I listened to Homer's Iliad, the whole long poem, while driving back and forth two hours a day to a work project. As Homer graphically demonstrates, bloody vengence is as much a part of our Western tradition as Plato and Pythagoras. Every one of the great Greek heroes took what you could only call sadistic delight in vanquishing the enemy in a stunning array of brutal, violent actions. Something there is in mankind that loves revenge. I'm just — I don't know what, American enough? male enough? human enough? — to thrill a little at the idea of our guys storming Osama's compound and taking him out.
But I get no lasting satisfaction from my own thrill. It comes back on me with a bitter taste. In my heart, I agree with Martin Luther King, however much of that opening sentiment he actually uttered. The reason the quote has gone viral is because there is wisdom in it, wisdom born of compassion, dignity, and respect for human life. The demands of love require us to, at the very least, be sober in the face of what took place in Pakistan on the first of May. In the 1957 sermon, King addresses this concept of love:
You look at every man, and you love him because you know God loves him. And he might be the worst person you’ve ever seen.
And this is what Jesus means, I think, in this very passage when he says, "Love your enemy." And it’s significant that he does not say, "Like your enemy." Like is a sentimental something, an affectionate something. There are a lot of people that I find it difficult to like. I don’t like what they do to me. I don’t like what they say about me and other people. I don’t like their attitudes. I don’t like some of the things 
they’re doing. I don’t like them. But Jesus says love them. And love is greater than like. Love is understanding, redemptive goodwill for all men, so that you love everybody, because God loves them. You refuse to do anything that will defeat an individual, because you have agape in your soul. And here you come to the point that you love the individual who does the evil deed, while hating the deed that the person does. This is what Jesus means when he says, "Love your enemy." This is the way to do it. When the opportunity presents itself when you can defeat your enemy, you must not do it.
It is not necessary that we grieve for bin Laden, but I do not see how we can rejoice either. I wish we would have taken him alive, brought him back to this country and put him on trial, proved to the world that we are a country of laws, as we did in Nuremberg. There are conflicting reports from Washington in this point; some high level sources say taking him alive was an option, others say it was not. I hope the former is true, and that this wasn't an assassination mission. In any case, to revel in so violent a death is poisonous to our national soul. On this point, King was powerfully eloquent in 1957. He understood hatred as being most destructive to those who exercise it:
There’s another reason why you should love your enemies, and that is because hate distorts the personality of the hater. . . . There is nothing more tragic than to see an individual whose heart is filled with hate. He comes to the point that he becomes a pathological case. For the person who hates, you can stand up and see a person and that person can be beautiful, and you will call them ugly. For the person who hates, the beautiful becomes ugly and the ugly becomes beautiful. For the person who hates, the good becomes bad and the bad becomes good. For the person who hates, the true becomes false and the false becomes true. That’s what hate does. You can’t see right. The symbol of objectivity is lost. Hate destroys the very structure of the personality of the hater.


A decade later, in 1967, as riots were tearing US cities apart, King reaffirmed his belief in nonviolence:

I'm concerned about justice. I'm concerned about brotherhood. I'm concerned about truth. And when one is concerned about these, he can never advocate violence. For through violence you may murder a murderer but you can't murder murder. Through violence you may murder a liar but you can't establish truth. Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can't murder hate. Darkness cannot put out darkness. Only light can do that.

As we stand proud in this blow stuck against international terrorism, we might try standing tall too, and denounce hatred in all its forms, in thought, word, action, and reaction. That includes the varieties of hatred we are now seeing around this country wearing the cloak of patriotism.   


  

Something beyond the void

In his book  Pictures and Tears , James Elkins describes the charged silence that fills the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas. The space ...