Monthly Archives: October 2011

I recently finished Lev Tolstoy’s War and Peace, one of those books I had heard about since I can remember, but I had little idea what was actually in there. As its title implies, the book tackles a lot, from the subtle social intrigue in the St. Petersburg salons of 1805 to Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow in 1812, swatted and harried by peasants and Cossacks. I didn’t expect so much practice reading French. (The translation I read, by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, 2007, reprints the bountiful French passages Tolstoy put in there, sometimes several pages long.) Nor did I expect such a direct skewering of historians and other intellectuals who advocate great man theories of history and who propose that ideas in a culture drive historical events.

Sometimes Tolstoy just stops narrating the action of his 1200-page historical fiction and spends a chapter trying to correct these errors of historical theory. Referring to the French revolution and the ouster of Louis XVI, he gets sarcastic: “At the end of the eighteenth century, some two dozen men got together in Paris and started talking about all men being equal and free. That led people all over France to start slaughtering and drowning each other” (1181). Several long passages throw down a gauntlet to historians directly like this, summarizing with a critic’s voice the big themes getting played out more intimately between his characters.

One main character, Rostov, “knew from his own experience that, when telling about military events, people always lied, as he himself had lied in telling about them; second, he had enough experience to know that in war everything goes on quite otherwise than we can imagine and recount” (647). Rostov realizes it’s both impossible to foresee and recall the way things actually go in big, life-changing moments. Beyond that, we lie about them anyway, fixing the story to fit. Another main character, Pyotr Kirillovich Bezukhov (aka “Pierre”), gets heavy into Masonic rites and numerology, deciding divine clues to his destiny are embedded in a particular translation of the Bible. Through a bunch of textual contortions, assigning numbers to each letter and writing his name “L’russe Besouhof,” he gets his name to match the numerology of Napoleon’s: 666. To him this means God has identified him as the man who must assassinate the French emperor as his army enters Moscow in 1812. The plan doesn’t work out.

Watching Pierre go so far to stretch and fold the evidence to fit his assumptions, I thought we’re all this guy to some extent—hopefully not bending scripture for permission to assassinate anyone—but we all warp the “facts” to fit. Tolstoy seems to sum this thread up with his critic’s voice toward the end of the novel, writing, “reason and will are only secretions of the brain” (1203). For Tolstoy, it seems nobody has access to divine clarity. As a critic he makes clear his annoyance with the mechanisms historians use to order events. Historians are bound to steer us wrong by grouping unlike things, picking arbitrary units of power, and assigning numbers that don’t match what happened.

The point I get from the action of the fiction, though, is it’s not possible to escape being a kind of historian—but each of us can avoid being a terrible one. Instead of making the self-assured contortions Pierre makes, I can reflect on my experience with levity, noticing as Rostov does that people all warp experience when we recall what we’ve done. I can remind myself that my version is incomplete. My wish to show myself in a good light bends how I remember things. My favorite plans may not work out, and that might be for the best.

I’ll be showing my painting BodyWeb 3 and a selection of prints in Beaverton’s 29th annual juried competition through early November. Click here to see photos of the accepted work by 77 painters, sculptors, and photographers from the Portland area and beyond.

With an opening gala Saturday, 5 November (7 to 9 pm), the show runs through 13 Nov., and it includes some musical performances and other events. Violas, guitars and harps, oh my! More details here.

Beaverton City Library, 12375 SW 5th St., Beaverton, Ore.

To support breast cancer awareness, I’ll be pouring wine at Vitae Springs vineyard in Salem, Oregon, this Saturday (22 October). They’re hosting the release of their Pinot Noir Rosé 2010. Girls only—7 to 10 p.m.—and I’m told guests are encouraged to wear pink. The $20 entry fee buys a Riedel glass, appetizers, a glass of the pink lady, and support for a local breast cancer treatment center. Click here for more information.

This will be the last event at the vineyard with my portraits of dancers presiding over it.

Ballet taught me that I am not my brain. I’m some evolving, moving, adjusting self. I act out being me. Being “ballet dancer” when I was younger felt temporary in a way other kinds of being didn’t. Dance took constant practice—repeating plie, tendu, and degage forward, backward, sideways, faster. My muscles wrapped around the bones in helixes. I got big thighs. My feet started to point by themselves, and my shoulders rested deep in my back. It became automatic to rise onto my toes and tuck my thumb near the palm while reaching for something in the cupboard. Skipping a couple days of training at the barre happened often, even skipping a week once in a while. More than that, though, and I started becoming another self. The effortless balance started slipping away. My spine started stacking in its former lazy S.

Other labels like “student,” “son” or “brother” seemed permanent, in large part because they were ways of thinking about myself I felt I couldn’t control. I was enrolled in school, born into a family of cheerful musical nerds. I felt my life was largely thrust upon me. “Dancer” felt slippery. I wasn’t yet a member of a company and had never performed. What made me “dancer” was dancing.

I had few words to help me mull over what that discovery might mean until I read a little book by philosopher Alva Noë called Out of Our Heads. In it, he writes, “Consciousness is not something that happens inside us. It is something we do or make. Better: it is something we achieve. Consciousness is more like dancing than it is like digestion” (xii). And later, “We can explain how the brain’s activity gives rise to consciousness only when we appreciate that what matters for consciousness is not the neural activity as such but neural activity as embedded in an animal’s larger action and interaction with the world around it” (47). His point is that it takes all parts of our bodies, the people around us, and the environment actually doing things in relation to each other to add up to experience. (That includes the past experiences we bring to new ones.)

This approach stands in deliberate contrast to other fashionable ways of explaining consciousness in neuroscience and psychology today, many based on fMRI scans of brain activity. What do those multicolored pictures of our brains actually show?

Noë’s approach isn’t exactly new. For lots of earlier philosophers, “being is becoming” in one way or another. Nietzsche and Heidegger come to mind. For me, though, the dance analogy is what clicked. Thinking of all this in terms of dance, this immediate lesson from my past, lets me apply this lesson with confidence elsewhere. In that vein I feel I’m only a painter if I’m painting. Taking too much time away from making pictures is like leaving the ballet barre. I lose a bit of that honed, trained self, and I itch to have him back. Rather than looking for artistic inspiration to come to me, I get up early and practice painting with the same faith as I used to drill dance steps in the ballet studio.

Of course there’s more to take away from this line of thinking than “when in doubt, work harder.” It prompts unending questions. Noë writes, “Our bodies and our minds are active. By changing the shape of our activity, we can change our own shape, body and mind. Language, tools, and collective practices make us what we are. Where do you stop, and where does the rest of the world begin?” (67). If I’m not just my brain, how much of the world should I see as part of myself? How does that affect how I treat or represent what I experience?

For me, reading and painting go hand in hand. If I’m not reading, I find I’m not working well as a painter. I have often wondered why that is. For me, painting (like dancing) is a mainly nonverbal practice. I talk with my models, of course, and we share all kinds of words while we work, but while I paint a portrait, I’m not saying to myself, “Ok, make a quarter-inch stroke of rusty red here, at this angle, to pull out that tendon’s shadow…” There is no monologue. I think it’s more like a nonverbal motorlogue or maybe it’s a phenomenological-kinaestheticlogue—which makes little sense. And that’s the point. The act of making pictures for me isn’t usually centered on language.

But there’s something valuable in constantly wrestling with ideas that aren’t our own. Even if we don’t use or directly relate our work to those ideas, it seems like good exercise. In her book, The Creative Habit, choreographer Twyla Tharp offers her take on reading:

“If you’re like me, reading is your first line of defense against an empty head. It’s how you learned as a child. It’s how you absorb difficult information. It’s how you keep your mind disciplined. If you monitor your reading assiduously, it’s even how you grade your brain’s conditioning; like an athlete in training, the more you read, the more mentally fit you feel. It doesn’t matter if it’s a book, magazine, newspaper, billboard, instruction manual, or cereal box—reading generates ideas, because you’re literally filling your head with ideas and letting your imagination filter them for something useful. If I stopped reading, I’d stop thinking. It’s that simple.” (101-02)

As a dancemaker Tharp also works in a nontextual medium. Organizing bodies onstage isn’t the same thing as organizing the alphabet on a page. Yet reading is crucial for her because it keeps her in the practice of filtering ideas. It keeps her imagination sharp. In this journal, I’ll be sharing some of my own filtering from time to time in the hope that it leads to good conversation. If you like, contact me with your own thoughts about these texts or with recommendations of what you’re reading while you do your work.