Sweet are the uses of adversity.
- William Shakespeare, As You Like It
Crazy Devil Sweeping deals with the natural link between Art and Tao (the Way), and how the civilizations of the orient and occident naturally compliment each other as seen in the yin-yang symbol. Comparisons between eastern and western artists and their work are combined with the author’s insights from a lifetime of experience in the visual arts, forty-two years of playing classical guitar, daily meditation and thirty-five years of training tai chi chuan.
Here, at Stockholm’s school for the deaf, where the children sing with their hands and incessantly slam the doors, I sequester myself in the broom closet. Ever wary of the supervisor’s wagging finger, I am now criminally usurping company time. My broom leans against the corridor wall outside, and my mop is in readiness in a bucket of soapy hot water. To plead my case, let us say... yes, let us say that I continue my janitor’s duties on this very page. I wield the janitor’s tools: the broom and the pen. In Master Fu Yuan Ni’s Wudang Solo Sword Dance which I practice in Lill-Jan Woods, there is a movement which comes just before the one called ”Dragonfly Touching on the Water” called ”Crazy Devil Sweeping.” All these frustrating years as a janitor have left me a bit warped, but thanks to tai chi and meditation, I am able to see the humor of this crazy devil sweeping, now with a broom, now with a sword, or paint brush or pen.
The reader may herself judge just how unethical it is of me to waste company time in this manner, but considering the stingy wages I am paid, the exorbitant taxes they deduct from them, and the downright nastiness of my supervisor, I have few qualms of conscience. In the texts in English on taoist practice which I have read over the years, much is said about warding off physical illness, but less about warding off madness, which, at least in my case – the crazy devil – has warranted some attention. ”I am not mad, but mad in craft,” as Hamlet says. As a musician, painter and poet in occidental civilization, I am obliged to acknowledge that this spiritual affliction has been a clear and present danger to our artists since antiquity. In The Gentle Art of Making Enemies Whistler took the pains to explain for us why this is so: ”Listen! There never was an artistic period. There never was an art-loving nation.” Even the Englishman turned taoist/buddhist, John Blofeld, felt threatened by this spiritual disorder during his initiation. But unlike Blofeld, who believed himself to be a reincarnated Chinese man, I have undertaken the study of oriental philosophies and inner disciplines remaining fully, unconditionally, occidental.
In the above-mentioned work by Whistler, Art is defended from the inane covetousness of diletantes and amateurs by its only conceivable caretaker – the artist:
Ladies and Gentlemen: I will not conceal from you that I mean to talk about Art. Yes, Art – that has of late become, as far as much discussion and writing can make it, a sort of common topic for the tea-table. Art is upon the Town! – to be chucked under the chin by the passing gallant – to be enticed within the gates of the householder – to be coaxed into company, as proof of culture and refinement. If familiarity can breed contempt, certainly Art – or what is currently taken for it – has been brought to its lowest stage of intimacy. [...] Alas, ladies and gentlemen, Art has been maligned.
(from Whistler’s ”Ten O’clock” address delivered in London on February 10, 1885)
Whistler used humor to make the bitter pill he came with more palatable to his audience. But the underlying gravity makes his speech similar to that of the Trojan seer Laocoon, who warned his brethren about the Wooden Horse – to no avail. In the little more than a century since Whistler delivered his ”Ten O’clock” speech, the malignancy has spread and become a vast, uncontrollable global epidemic. The grievance that Whistler nurtured I in turn nurture, for I feel that the non-artists in control of Art – the same diletantes, amateurs and critics whom Whistler condemned – are by far more qualified to wield the janitor’s mop and broom than am I.
It strikes me as odd that the ”art world” is controlled by non-artists. Those who most often write about Art are non-artists. Those who are considered experts of Art are non-artists. And for the most part, those who live comfortable and luxurious lives from Art are non-artists. Like Native Americans, the artists have lost their homeland to invaders, been forced onto a reservation, and obliged to dance to the conqueror’s pipe. This is the dance I perform daily with my mop and broom, to the steady tempo of allegro ma non troppo (happy, but not too much).
It was pure random accident that led me to tai chi and meditation, the same randomness that brought my father and mother together, out of millions of other possible parents, to conceive me. At times, when I am more than normally misanthropic, I reproach them for having done so. Then the non-being one focuses on in meditation would be a fait accompli. But even Lao Tzu could be seen as misanthropic when he likens the human race to ”sacrificial straw dogs.”
With nine and a half hours of my day (including lunch and a one-hour round-trip bus ride) devoted to the cleaning of latrines and the mopping of floors, I find it a struggle to keep my misanthropy in check. After two and a half decades of similar work to pay the rent, I have begun to experience this painful loss of vital time in terms of the following true story in the newspaper: A man was abducted, drugged unconscious and driven away in a car. When he awoke he was in a hotel room on a bed. There was a bandage on his flank. He was finally horrified to realize that medical ghouls had stolen one of his kidneys to sell to a transplantation clinic. He had in effect been operated on while unconscious, and once the kidney had been removed, he was neatly sewn up again. Such is the way I experience the loss of this large portion of my life, which has been permanently wrenched from me, and can never be replaced. That is why I have few scruples about writing now, in this boom closet, on company time.
Taoism entered the picture in an effort to cope with this hopeless situation, and although I am not a taoist, it has produced healthy improvements over the years. I can laugh at the whole thing now. The function of Art in this context can be summarized thusly: taoism is expressed through the various ”arts”. The arts have as their mother the vast and mysterious global phenomenon called Art. The ancient Greeks called her Mnemosyne – Mother of the Muses. The Greek word mousiké, the Art of the Muses, referred not only to music, but to all the countless ”arts”. The Muses are the female deities presiding over the various arts. Some have names: Calliope for song, Thalia for drama, Cleio, Euterpe, Melpomene, Erato, Terpsichore, Polymnia and Urania. So sang Hesiod. Similar female deities of Tibetan buddhism go by the name dakinis, and assisted Milarepa in his One Hundred Thousand Songs.
Taoism has produced many schools of self-defence. Practitioners of the martial arts today might be more inclined to emphasize the ”martial” rather than the ”arts” aspect of their disciplines. Most practice them as sports and have little understanding what constitutes an ”art”. When a sense of sacredness is absent in any given practice, it ceases to be an Art. Art is the ”way” with a lower case ”w”, just as the artist is the ”creator” with a lower case ”c”. Art is the ”way” as applies to human creation, Tao is the ”Way” as applies to all Creation.
The Art of Man is one fathomless metaphor of awesom scope. In it is fossilized the mysteries of Creation - birth, life, death, rebirth – an eternally evolving metamorphosis. From the painted images of stone-age artists in ultra-archaic times, to the images of Matisse and Picasso in our own time, the various art forms have been gradually formed, along with all human knowledge. Before Art, animal shrieks and cries developed in accordance with the Way into language, and then stone-age artists plucked forth symbols from their souls that contained the power of image and sound in concentrated form. They doodled in the clay of river banks, on wood, stone and bone, inventing letters and numbers. These earliest artists took the letters they had created and formed the Word. And then, with the tongue on the roof of the mouth, they formed the World. This accumulated knowledge tens and hundreds of thousands of years old has as its vessel today the creation of stone-, bronze- and iron-age artists: the alphabet and numbers. Whatever the epoch, Art has been the pathfinder, and its main function has always been to promote the spiritual health of the society at large. (see also "A Painter's Stroll Through Millennia of Western Art")
Art is like the dance of the bee showing his brethren the way to the flowery meadow. The arts are the various ”ways” leading to the Way. The taoist classic Wen Tzu refers several times to ”the arts of the Way.” This can be shortened to ”the arts” and even further to Art. The arts need not refer only to such crafts as music, painting, poetry, drama and dance. Ideally the arts can also include government, economy, education, defence, commerce, science, mathematics, and just about everything human beings do. In this context, Art signifies the best way to do something. A common expression for the highest level of excellence in a given practice is: ”He makes an art of it.” In the Wen Tzu it is written: ”Of the energies of the universe, none is greater than harmony. Harmony means the regulation of yin and yang, the division of night and day. ”(1) Art is the study of Harmony, and is one letter short from being an angram for Tao.
When I first encounterd this word in the Tao Te Ching, something which for my whole life had been a firmly rooted, wordless presence in my soul was given a name. And I immediately understood that that name was in excess – there is one word too many in Tao. Reading Lao Tzu’s words about the Way corroborated intuitive sensations I had experienced since earliest childhood, sensations of the Way which an artistic gift had made obvious from the start. While taoism is unique to China, Tao is universal to humanity, whether it be called the Way, la Voie, el Camino or Vägen. Native North American cultures, themselves a distant echo of prehistoric Asian cultures, speak of the Way. Tens of thousands of years ago both continents were peopled by societies in harmony with the Way, the People of P’o or the Uncarved Block of taoist tradition. In northwestern California along the banks of the Klamath river, the Yurok people inhabit the land as they have done for thousands of years. Robert Spott, a Yurok friend of anthropologist Alfred Kroeber who distinguished himself on the battlefields of World War I, once told Kroeber’s wife Theodora how the creator gods set about creating the world, teaching its inhabitants the same doctrine as that of Lao Tzu - the Way: ”Upon the emergence of the people into their world, these same gods taught them the Way they were to follow, the rules and the customs and beliefs by which the Way should be forever maintained. They taught the people as well the language they were to speak. The Way proved good, the language intrinsic to it.”(2)
The shadowy Chinese societies of antiquity known only in legend began traditions and beliefs that were the seeds of taoism. They have as a North American counterpart the thousands of years of native cultures which as well have left no historical records. Both continents were peopled by societies in harmony with the Way, without their being aware of it. The People of P’o. The People of the Uncarved Block. In the west it is referred to as Eden. The second sage of taoism, Chuang Tzu, wrote the following about the People of P’o:
They were upright and correct without knowing that to be so was righteousness. They loved one another without knowing
that to do so was benevolence. They were sincere without knowing that it was loyalty. They kept their promises without knowing that to do so was to be in good faith. They helped one another without thought of giving or receiving gifts. Thus their actions left no trace and we have no records of their affairs. (3)
It appears that in China the arts are more intimately linked with spiritual cultivation in the individual than they are in the west. If European bad character brought forth good art, so much the better. But at times good character went hand in hand with good art even in the occident. In the manuscript called Codex Atlanticus Leonardo da Vinci wrote:
Good literary creators are right-minded, and considering that one should rather praise the enterprise than the result, you should give the finest praise to the one who is right-minded, but little skilled as a writer, and not to the one who is skilled as a writer but lacks right-mindedness.(4)
In spite of this sound advice by one of the greatest European masters, in the west lovely verses in themselves are enough, even if they are the result of bad character. College professors defend Whitman’s bad character by saying only his verses should be considered. In my experiences reading translations of Chinese poetry, however, good verses are an alchemical means of expressing good character, building upon good character to achieve better character, and maintaining it in the event that the best is beyond the poet’s grasp. This very practical use of art as a means of self-fulfillment for all individuals is absent in the occident. Poets are often drunkards, painters often licentious, while Art is coveted by the dealers and collectors who plunder the artists even in their poverty, bickering and bartering like apes over a morsel of banana. The price of Art, not its value, is paramount in western culture.
Although ”religious” was once a synonym for ”sacred”, religions have strayed from the essence of sacredness and their rituals become, to use Lao Tzu’s words, ”the flowery embellishment of the Way.” This is why I am not a religious man. This is why taoism appealed to me. Certain taoist adepts do not consider taoism a religion. The abott of the Valley Spirit Hermitage who so hospitably greeted John Blofeld, told the Englishman that religion ”is a term better suited to Confucians or Christians. Ours is not a religion but a way to the Way.”(5) Certain things in this book may be redundant for some readers, new territory for others. As in all that I write, I address a universal audience, spanning those readers whose studies of oriental cultures far surpass mine, to those who encounter them for the first time. Not being a specialist, I do not write for specialists. My approach is rather that of a generalist, as illustrated by these lines from Plutarch’s essay ”Symposiacs” (Dinner Speaking): ”Our talk should be like wine, something shared by all, of which everyone partakes.”
Books are a dubious source of knowledge when compared to the ancient modes of oral transmission in all parts of the world. Neither Homer nor Lao Tzu, they say, wrote what has come down to us. They spoke or sang. But being isolated in the twentieth century as if in a mine cave-in, atomized individuals today rarely if ever have the privilege of hearing Wisdom transmitted orally. Alas, books are about the only other alternative. Not yet can I heed the advice of the poet-emperor Marcus Aurelius: ”Cast away the thirst after books, that you may not die murmuring, but cheerfully, and thankful from your heart to the gods.” (Meditations) I still crouch over texts in search of some ultimate essence, as did the wandering Chinese poet Li Po (701-762):
At dawn I hasten toward the Purple Hall,(6)
At dusk I await edicts from the Golden Gate.
I read book after book, scattering rare manuscripts all around.
I study antiquity to search for the ultimate essence.
Whenever I feel I understand a word,
I close my book and suddenly smile.
(”Thoughts While Studying at Hanlin Academy”) tr. Joseph J. Lee
The other day, while rumaging through the many rejection letters I have received from publishers over the years, I encountered one from Stuart Olson dated four years ago. It was a friendly and encouraging letter, and of all my collected letters of rejection, this one had the best reason for refusing an MS – the magazine to which it was sent, The Bamboo Tablet, was going out of business. Stuart wrote:
”You should write a book based on your observations of various popular taoist English works. Don’t laugh – it’s a good idea.” There are many western scholars of taoism whose knowledge far exceeds mine, and who have given the world valuable words on the subject. It is perhaps presumptuous of me to add my groat’s worth of wit to the existing canon. If so, I refer the reader to the above-mentioned letter and proceed with the knowledge that at least one adept thinks it’s a good idea.
A broom closet
March 24, 1995
Painting and Ocean
Poetry and Greece
Discord and Physics
Music and Humqaq
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