Telling Landscape Stories (revised)

[A PDF version of this post may be found here.]

Looking out my window this morning, I see an overcast sky. Measured on a grayscale, (with black at 0 and white at 100) its light value hovers somewhere in the neighborhood of 75. The light itself seems diffuse, somewhat hazy.

Compared with how they looked yesterday in the bright sunlight, the greens, oranges, and yellows of the landscape appear veiled. I notice, though, that even in that dull scenery the oranges look brighter in relation to the greens than they did yesterday. The sight makes no theoretical sense to me. Is there less blue light shining down from the sky to kill them? Yes, but since the clouds hide the sun, there is also a lot less red-orange light to enhance them.

While the color problem intrigues me, it would probably take a lot to make me want to paint the scene. Its overall effect is cheerless. What could a painting of it say to anyone except that I am personally interested in the behavior of light on dreary days like this? Add that the oranges that appear slightly to glow are the colors of the dead leaves and fallen pine needles that cover the forest floor, and such a painting might actually come across as somewhat depressing in its narrative content.

A painting always tells a story. But just because it can be told does not make a story worth telling.

I suspect that each of us knows stories that are true, but the telling of which strikes us as undesirable. They may be stories about our own personal lives in which some people appear in an unflattering light. Perhaps in some instances, we ourselves might end up not looking all that good in them if we told the whole truth.

There are also stories that remind one of truths about human beings in general, or about life, that one would just as soon not be reminded of. One knows them well enough, perhaps all too well, and someone insisting on telling them irritates everyone.

Finally, there are stories that, though not painful to hear, seem inherently uninteresting. That the colors of the landscape look washed out on some cloudy days may be one of them.That someone finds that intriguing for reasons of his own is probably another. These are stories we all know. Hearing them repeated bores people. It may, in addition, embarrass them to see one of their kind being so distressingly unmindful of that fact. All of that is undesirable.

None of this would be even worth talking about were it not for the fact that there are stories that, although equally well-known, one enjoys hearing again and again. The one that I told the other day about the yellow of the forsythia announcing the arrival of spring probably falls into that category, at least when a painting tells it well. Yet one would be hard pressed to explain what makes the arrival of spring interesting. Could there possibly be a truth less surprising than that, in due course, spring follows winter?

But however pedestrian a truth this may be, it happens to be one that we welcome, and welcome more warmly than that the lovely colors of fall always end up buried under the snow and the often dreary light of winter days. That, it seems, is a truth about us that overrides the minimal information value of a painting that successfully captures the heart-warming feel of the light on an early spring day.

So far so good. Painting works as story-telling when the stories it tells are those that we enjoy hearing, and especially those that we feel a need to hear again and again, such as that there is hope. I sometimes wonder, though, whether painting can do better than that. Never mind telling stories that, though not especially enjoyable, we need to hear because they are true and because facing their truth would do us good. Painting may have to leave that task to drama, literature, or philosophy. But what about some of those pedestrian truths that apparently defeat the power of the latter effectively to convey? They are not necessarily unpleasant, just hard to internalize when conveyed in words. They are so complicated that words only seem to add to their complexity. Here is an example of one.

Loving life occasionally takes work. That work is worth doing because our love of life is the only thing that enables us to bear the burden of unsolvable problems with a measure of grace.

Now you would think that this is so obviously true that everyone knows it. In my experience few people actually do. They appear to know it at the level of abstraction, but not in a way that makes a difference in their lives. They do not do the work needed to keep their love of life alive. One might think that they do not not how to do that. But assuming one takes the task seriously, figuring out how to do it does not require much thought. That is what makes me think that the truth in this case is either not well-known or not well-understood, as well as that the reason for that may be that words cannot effectively convey it.

Let’s step back a bit. There are two kinds of problems in human life: those that we can solve and those that we cannot. Quite frequently, trying to solve those that we cannot tends to make them worse. Now that, by itself, is a very old story. To my mind, no one told it better than Sophocles more than twenty-five hundred years ago. But there is a part of it that he did not tell, or not convincingly, at any rate. How cope with the burden of problems that are unsolvable?

As Sophocles tells the story, the only way to do so is to gird one’s loins and grit one’s teeth. Attend to the strength of your character! Cultivate virtue! Find it in you somehow to suffer graciously all those things that you cannot change! It all sounds like good advice, but try offering it to someone who happens to be in the grip of an unsolvable problem! It will do nothing for them because, as advice goes, it happens to be largely worthless.

I know that borders on blasphemy. So, please bear with me.

The classic example of an unsolvable problem is that all people die. Being told, however many times, that there is not a single thing one can do to avert that fate in one’s own case does not solve the problem that living with that truth presents. Being in the grip of it will ruin your days.

The truth does not feel any less catastrophic because one understands there is nothing one can do about it. And gritting one’s teeth does not help either. In fact, nothing does. The truth only becomes bearable once it starts to vanish from among one’s preoccupations. But one cannot simply banish it from one’s consciousness by an act of will. One can only hope that it will gradually disappear from center stage to retreat into the wings. It will still be there and cast a shadow, part of the background music, as it were, but not loud enough constantly to disturb the proceedings on the stage. And for virtually everyone, that is what actually happens with respect to that very large unsolvable problem: they learn gradually to ignore it. It disappears from among their central preoccupations.

Much goes into that retreat of mortality back into the wings of our consciousness, including the gradual internalizing of relatively reassuring ideas about what happens to us when we die. We learn, for example, that although dying may involve a brief unpleasantness, death itself is not the prospect of catastrophic suffering. Our selves either simply vanish, as does the light when one flips a switch, or we envisage them as going on to a pleasant posthumous career in some other place. In any case, however, all that really matters is that the problem disappears. And what primarily causes it to disappear is consuming involvement in life. Our attention gets caught up in its demands and possibilities. It just happens, and it rarely requires any girding of loins or gritting of teeth.

Not every unsolvable problem is of that magnitude. Suppose that your son or daughter is determined to marry someone you dislike for reasons that are unlikely to change. Perhaps the person is a fool, or excessively domineering, or obsessive about his or her religious faith, which happens to differ from yours. In any case, there is little that you can do about it. If you go along, you will have to tolerate the presence in your family life of someone you cannot abide. If you oppose the marriage, they will proceed without your cooperation. You will have alienated your child in addition. Either way, you lose. How do you cope? As best you can, which is to say that you learn not to dwell on the problem. You think about it as little as possible. If you don’t learn that and, instead, keep tormenting yourself, the problem will ruin your days, turn family holidays, like Thanksgiving, into worse ordeals than they need to be, and wreak general havoc with your peace of mind. Moreover, chances are that with your torment obvious, you will in due course see less and less of your child.

Here is another scenario. Your child, though highly capable and well-educated, does not buy into the realities of American economic life. Because s/he is easily bored, s/he changes jobs every two or three months. They are always entry level jobs. You say, “You can do this now, but you will not be able to do it, or want to do it, when you are forty or fifty. You need to attend to your long-term economic interests by getting some sort of serious career underway.” The child does not listen. But there is nothing that you can do about that. You can only worry and lose sleep. In due course, the problem slips from your consciousness, from center stage into the background, to reemerge only when circumstances force it upon your attention. When that happens, you tell yourself that you have done everything that you possibly could for your child and that the rest is up to him or her. And then you get on with your own life.

Some unsolvable problems, however, are much harder to bear than others, namely those for which this kind of remedy is not available. Being the parent of a chronically ill child, or devoted to, and responsible for, anyone significantly and chronically impaired in their health, come to mind as examples. Such problems are harder to live with than inevitable mortality because they cannot be relegated to the background of consciousness. They are ever present, occupying the center of the stage. As a consequence, they take an immense toll on the quality of life.

It seems to me that there is an important lesson in all of that. When possible, one copes with the burden of unsolvable problems not by denying that they are real, but by relegating them to the shadows in the background of one’s consciousness. There is no doing that by fiat while one finds oneself in the grip of them. The only way of doing it (if ‘doing’ is the right word here) is to allow the stage of one’s consciousness to be taken over by other consuming concerns. I say ‘allow’ because no act of will is involved. Any act of will would make the strategy transparent and ineffective. One simply (or not so simply) avails oneself of the reality that life wants to be lived by allowing or enabling it to have its way.

Another side of the same truth is that most unsolvable problems become consuming over the long term only when not much else, or not enough, occupies the center stage of consciousness – when life goes AWOL, so to speak. As one grows old, for example, and some passions start to wane, the inevitability of death re-emerges from out of the wings to reassert itself as a prominent concern. Or suddenly freed of the demands of work life and deprived of all the possibilities that came with it, newly retired people find troubling questions asserting themselves in their consciousness, such as whether their lives are meaningful, whether they have lived wisely, whether their spouses or their children love them, and so on. Their children probably love them just as much as before, though possibly not quite enough, certainly not enough to fill the gap left on the stage of consciousness by all that has disappeared from it. However devoted one’s children may be, their love cannot carry that much weight on its back. Indeed, demanding that it carry that weight, one risks causing their devotion to diminish.

As for any actual and continuing problems or shortcomings of one’s heathy grown children, in case they have some, one tends to forget that they were not nearly as consuming and disturbing to one as a parent when one had other things to be consumed by.

On all these fronts, the lesson seems to be that being and remaining fully engaged in life keeps one safe, relatively immune, so to speak, to the potential ravages of unsolvable problems. To my mind, that is the part of the story that Sophocles left out in his obsessive focus on necessary teeth gritting and virtue. The latter enters the picture only in situations where an unsolvable problem cannot be responsibly solved by banning it from the center stage of consciousness.

If I wanted to analyze the problem further, I would say that the insistent training we receive by way of upbringing and acculturation not to ignore solvable problems in our lives has the unfortunate side-effect of making it hard for us to ignore unsolvable ones. It thereby limits our ability effectively to solve the problem that living with unsolvable problems can represent.

All the same, when it comes to dying, for example, most people manage reasonably well in ignoring its inevitability. As I suggested, that ignoring seems to happen all by itself. Very few people, if any, have to find their way to it by dwelling on the illogicality of allowing one’s life to be poisoned by consciousness of one’s eventual demise, when all that makes that demise regrettable is that life is lovely and worth living. So, if I permit myself to be distressed by my mortality to the point where that distress destroys the quality of my life, then there is nothing to be distressed about, at least in my own case, since nothing worth having will be lost when I die. More importantly, however, chances are that dwelling on that apparent illogicality would not solve the problem in any case. So what if my distress is illogical? That does not make it either unreal or less disabling. Nothing can, short of my mortality disappearing from among my preoccupations. I cannot will that. Fortunately, therefore, it just happens without my noticing how.

It may occasionally be useful, however, if only in retrospect, to take a look at the process. For quite a few people, especially as they grow old, the process stops being automatic. They become less caught up in life. As a consequence, their mortality, as well as any number of other unsolvable problems, start usurping the stage of consciousness and cause havoc with the quality of their lives, simply because the burden of living with those problems becomes harder to bear.

In case one does not know it, examining the process would reveal that becoming less caught up in life is a psychological disaster with undesirable consequences on many fronts, probably including damage to one’s physical health. It therefore behooves one not to let it happen if one can avoid it. Unfortunately, it will happen to just about anyone who believes, without ever thinking about it, that being and remaining engaged in life requires no efforts just because it does not seem to require any when one is young. Believing that goes with a kind of passivity, with simply counting on life being infinitely captivating, and with waiting for it to start capturing one’s passions and interests again in case it has stopped doing so. Life may occasionally come through; more often, it does not, especially not when the particular interests or passions one counts on life to revive are those the vitality of which presupposes being young.

All of that is obvious to anyone who thinks about it with any kind of care. It is obvious, for example, that passion requires objects or endeavors to be passionate about. It may be somewhat less obvious that passion itself creates those objects or endeavors by causing them to be experienced as attractive. At its origin, passion is an unfocused thirst for quickening in search of an object that will slake it. It becomes recognizable as a particular (focused) passion when it finds that object. As focused passion, it comes into being at the same time as that object which, as unfocused passion, it helps create for itself. It fashions that object, so to speak, out of anything suitable. One cannot simply will oneself into being caught up by this person or that enterprise. The thirst has to be there and the right object has to show up. But, as I have argued here in the past, the thirst is always present. The right object (or suitable material for its creation), however, can be hard to come by if one passively waits for it to just show up.

The key to finding it is imagination, understood as the capacity to make oneself see with new eyes, or, rather, with many different kinds of eyes. Call it effective questing for suitable construction materials that your thirst for quickening can shape into objects that will give it a focus and, in the process, both intensify and slake it. Call it energetic self-exploration if you want, or a determined exposure of the self in search of what will touch it. In any case, you look until you see the thing that moves you, whether it be a person, a dimension of a person, or an enterprise, or a dimension of that enterprise. And you do not stop until you have found it. The only thing you do stop doing is foraging endlessly in empty old places where you once found what is no longer there to be found because you have changed. By contrast, places where you never looked, or once foraged and did not find because you lacked imagination, may actually hold more promise.

Though it may appear to be, my purpose here is not to lecture, or even to recommend how anyone should go about living his or her life. It is to clarify this question in my mind: if all of this is so obvious and yet so many suffer needlessly because, though they know it, they seem unable to get beyond just knowing it to putting that knowledge into practice, where is art? Is imagination not the primary business of art? Why can’t painting tell this story, and tell it a lot better and more convincingly than I just did, or than any philosophy can? Is it not a story that anyone who is not a fool would want to hear and might enjoy hearing, if told well?

As I sit here looking at the somewhat dreary landscape outside, I am asking myself what it would mean to paint it, not just well, but in such a way as to make the painting tell that story about the business of human beings having to work at loving life.

The sky looks darker than it did just a few hours ago. The light is slightly less hazy. Compared to the greens, the oranges still glow, but not quite as brightly as before. Is there anything in this landscape that makes it more than just the glaring absence of yesterday, possibly even more interesting?

Like all obvious beauty, sunlight and bright colors are easy to love. This isn’t. Except for the oranges, most of the colors look muddy. The sky looks unfriendly. But everything else out there is the same. The shadows are subtle, some edges sharp, others soft; the green needles of the pines vary in their infinite individuality; the leaves of my dead olive tree, killed off, despite all my care, by a northern winter inhospitable to such trees, are a sadly compelling deep gray, almost black, while not far from it, my bamboo stand is clearly starting to feel its oats; and despite the dim light, the heathers are blooming full bore in astounding variations of violets, pinks, and whites. Though looking a bit sleepy, the forsythia are still there, too.

What is new is my seeing the possibilities of the scene – the bright lichen in the distance, for example, that I did not even notice yesterday – and along with them an entirely different scene to start with, one that looks full of painterly promise. If I were good enough to paint it well, wouldn’t that be a good story? Except to people who know plants and their seasons, it would not say much about the coming of spring, but it might speak of something much more complicated, of another kind of hope, and of the need to love life even when it does not grab you by the lapels and pull you in. If I were really good, it might even whisper of faith in human possibilities when the going gets hard, of not making too much of yesterday, of not caring all that much about tomorrow either, since you are alive today with eyes that see and a heart full of longing.

I am not that good with paint, and I may never be. But I can imagine a painting that despite the apparent modesty of its subject has the power to induce in a viewer a flash of understanding that cannot be had in any other way and cause him henceforth to look with different eyes, not just at landscapes, but at all that surrounds him in his life, and thereby invigorates his love for it. Ideally, he might even notice that looking at the painting at that moment, he does not worry much about his mortality or about any other unsolvable problems he labors under. That might be enough to make him take up painting himself, or some other art the creations of which stimulate the imagination.

I have wasted the day writing when I should have tried to paint that landscape. But I am sure there will be other such days. Rain is forecast for tomorrow, for example. I’ll may try painting it then, assuming that I come up with an answer to the question I left unanswered above. What happens to one’s love of life when one needs it most, but life pushes one away? What happens when one’s love of it is constantly displaced in one’s consciousness either by one’s own suffering or that of others? If one finds oneself in that situation, a painting like the one envisaged might strike one as insipid.

© A. Serge Kappler 2011













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