Oscar Wilde and “The Critical Spirit”

This article is my submission to the July edition of The BeZine.  For the  table of contents with links to my colleague’s work, click here.

“THE CRITIC AS ARTIST: WITH SOME REMARKS UPON THE IMPORTANCE OF DOING NOTHING” — Oscar Wilde wrote this essay in the form of a dialogue between two characters, Gilbert and Ernest, in the library of a house in Piccadilly.  Here are some key quotes from that piece:

“The one duty we owe to history is to re-write it.  That is not the least of the tasks in store for the critical spirit.”

“When man acts he is a puppet.  When he describes he is a poet.”

I confess I have not read The Critic As Artist in its entirety and so have not discovered Wilde’s “remarks upon the importance of doing nothing”.  However, I do have some understanding of our critical mind, the ways we apply it, and the results of being dominated by it.

First of all, what is ‘the critical spirit’?  I think what the author is getting at is the individual thought process that creates meaning.  What we ‘know’ of the world might be broken into 3 categories: Fact, Experience and Story. Fact is the measured detail of life — how old it is, how big it is, how it reacts chemically, that kind of thing. We learn some things from it, but it has no emotional arch, no meaning.

Experience is the raw sensation of the moment: emotions, smells, sounds, tastes, sights, awareness, feeling.  It is how we know we are alive.

And then there’s Story, and this is how we are all poets: we take in data, we see events transpire, we feel emotion and sensation, and then, we put that together into a narrative that makes ‘sense’ to us.  We have created a story, a meaning, and attached it to history.  That work is largely supervised by our Ego as our thought processes select and omit and weigh the data according to our own preferences and values.  We imagine and imitate what we like, we suppress what we don’t; we spin what comes out.  These stories become part of the body of data that we use to create further meaning as well.  It is essential to realize that we are constantly making up stories.  Civilization is a story.  Religion is a story.  Philosophy and Art and Psychology and Anthropology and so many other pursuits are simply ways that we have manufactured meaning by creating stories.  There is wonderful wisdom in recognizing “the danger of a single story”, and so it is a fortunate thing to have so many different ones.  (a Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, fleshes this out in her profound TED talk, HERE) Stories are ubiquitous.  There is no ‘right’ story.  Good stories point at Truth, but there are lots of ways to construct them.

This awareness of the creation of story by your own Ego is the key to “the importance of doing nothing” as well.  The plethora of stories and the facility of story-telling in our culture tends to dominate our reactions and expectations, creating drama, manipulation and anxiety along with meaning.  In some ways, we want that.  We find it exciting.  But it’s also exhausting and can be exploitative.  To be able to leave the story-telling aside and simply BE is important for my well-being and my personal peace.  Meditation is helpful in the practice of stilling the ego and refraining from making up meaning.  When I concentrate on the present moment and return to the simple activity of breathing, I allow the world to be what it is instead of conscripting it into the service of my creative ego.  Then I am free to relax my mind and let go of my anxieties about how the story will turn out.  My energy is renewed, and I am at peace.  (This is a practice that I am only just beginning to employ.  Awareness is the first step!)

“The imagination imitates; it is the critical spirit that creates.”  We are invited to engage with the world on many different levels, all of which can be useful and appropriate at certain times.  Wisdom is the art of choosing how to engage in a way that is edifying for yourself and others.  For everything, there is a season: a time to imitate, a time to create, and a time to refrain from creative ego activity.  May each of us find joy in the exploration of this Wisdom and delight where we recognize this exploration in others!

Vivid

© 2015, essay and photographs, Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved

Weekly Photo Challenge: Rule of Thirds

 

I’ve been aware of this technique of thirds with a blurry bokeh background for maybe a year or two, and I’ve been working on it.  “Working” is a term I use loosely, because I don’t take pictures on any regular basis.  But it’s nice when I’m composing a shot that now I have some guidelines in my head to apply.  I would love to be able to say that I practice photography with some discipline.  I would love to be able to say that I practice meditation and exercise with discipline.  Sadly, I don’t.  But I really admire people who do.  Like Pablo Casals.  Here’s my favorite anecdote about him:

When Casals (then age 93) was asked why he continued to practice the cello three hours a day, he replied, “I’m beginning to notice some improvement.”

I suppose that his practice has something to do with him being alive at 93 as well.  Ya think?  Follow your bliss, photographers, and practice for your own well-being!

Rule of Thirds

A Little Story About Loving Yourself

If you’re puzzled by relationships…

might he be the one…and feel that perhaps something is missing in your life…

something's missing…and you’ve done the same thing over and over, hoping something different might result…

patternimagine what might happen if you simply followed your bliss and did what you love.

do what you loveA life may emerge that is not what you dreamed or expected or even what you may have been promised.  Still, it is actual and dynamic…and there you are, being yourself and still doing what you love.  That’s not a bad outcome, is it?

whole scene

© 2015, essay and photographs, Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved

Photography 101: Moment

What’s the difference between capturing a moment and just taking a blurry photo?  I struggle with this…and in that struggle, I suppose, is where Art is born.  There is one photographer whose blog I follow who has elevated the art of photographing motion to an exquisite level.  Her name is Karen McRae, and her blog is draw and shoot.  You should check out her stuff.  It’s no wonder she has 12,000 followers.  

So what have I got?  Well, there’s low light and people who can’t stay still.  Like my daughter at an outdoor evening concert, talking with her hands. 

momentA moment of scintillating storytelling, or just another blurry photo?  You decide.  There’s the moment of movement in falling water…but it’s way overdone, probably.

moving water

And the actual “OMG! I have to get my camera out because THIS is happening!”

spider blurAnd it’s barely recognizable, and you hope you can adjust your settings and try again before your surprisingly swift subject disappears into some shelter off the trail.  Here goes:

tarantulaYes!  That’s what it is, clearly, right there on the path in New Mexico.  A tarantula.  Now, do I feel better that I’ve “nailed it down”, so to speak?  Or do I more enjoy the breathless, life-is-a-dynamic-thing, fuzzy ’round the edges illustration?  I have this debate with myself.  I believe in the dynamic; I habitually strive toward the “perfection”.   Maybe this is the struggle that will someday birth some Art from me. 

Wilderness and the Myth of Nothing

“There’s nothing out there!  It’s a barren landscape.  Why would you want to go there?  Why should we preserve that useless place?” 

Nothing out there, eh?  Well, if that’s Nothing, it’s pretty spectacular.  It’s vast, for one thing.  Stretching in all directions, as far as the eye can see and further.  And it’s limited, encased in a single droplet from a juniper berry, sweet and pungent in my mouth, yet powerful enough to stimulate a rush from my salivary glands and wet my parched throat.  You could live on Nothing.  Many have, and left their artwork in symbols on the rocks.  Yes, they had time for Art in ‘subsistence living’.  Do you have time for Art in your life?  It is barren of some things.  There are no strip malls.  There are no straight lines.  There is a meandering curve of vegetation down there.  It’s a lot more narrow than it used to be.  The air is warming.  The climate is changing.  Fecundity is fighting the curse that foists barrenness upon it. The energy of life will not give up easily.  And that’s why I want to go there.  To learn.  We must preserve it in order to let it teach us.  We are ignorant.  We ignore the wilderness and call it Nothing.  There is a story there.  A Myth.  One day we may get wise. 

the myth of nothing

The Ojito wilderness

© 2014, essay and photographs, Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved

100 Thousand Poets for Change

As a core team member of The Bardo Group, I have been invited, encouraged, challenged to participate in the 100 Thousand Poets for Change event.  For more information about this event, and to be stirred and prodded in you own artistic lethargy, click here

I yearn to be a poet, an artist, a musician.  I often find a piece that seems so right, so seemingly effortless, so fitting that I think it can’t be hard to craft a work like that…it simply lays over its theme like a glove.  Not so.  Listening to music on my way to work yesterday, I heard a poet’s frustration: “I don’t know why I spend my time / Writing songs I can’t believe / With words that tear and strain to rhyme.” (Paul Simon: Kathy’s Song.)

I feel this theme of Peace and Justice coursing through my life, my thoughts, my work, my hopes, and I wonder how hard it would be to write a poem about it.  I talked to a young man half my age who has studied forensic justice and just interviewed for a position as a mentor, a parole partner, someone who will help perpetrators and victims get together and talk, face to face.  I thought it was a great idea, for both parties, for all parties.  Here’s my attempt to let that idea percolate:

Let’s Face It

Behind the veil, the dirty shroud, the black burka, the white Klan sheet,

the knit ski mask, the heavy gas mask, the transparent oxygen mask, the impenetrable death mask,

the dense fur, the redwood bark, the shiny scales, the matted feathers,

the protective shield, the official badge, the repeated slogan,

the coarse beard, the perfect make-up,

the injections, the implants,

the scars, the screen

 

There is a face, a viable being.

 

When eyes recognize

kin and skin, then peace begins.

Face to face is the starting place.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Art

“Art is the proper task of life.” — Neitzsche.

What is Art?  Who gets to define it?  Who gets to make it?  Do we delegate this activity to those trained and proven in convention or do we allow that any human has the privilege to create, to explore, to juxtapose materials and images and sounds and actions and ‘stuff’ of any description into something unique?  And do we recognize that the miraculous gift of this activity is not merely the product to be admired, but the process that transforms?  Have you been changed by Art, as a creator and as a consumer?  Do you disqualify yourself from the role of artist?  Is it fear that keeps you from it?

I admire people who engage in “the proper task of life”.

Art

Weekly Photo Challenge: Treasure

Treasure: pirate’s booty, artifacts from an ancient tomb, shiny objects stashed in your nest, things you collect and wrap carefully. 

I do not think of myself as a materialistic person because I don’t like shopping and buying, but I do have a collection of stuff that I have found or been given.  These semi-precious items are housed in special places like shelves, curio cabinets, and glass-fronted cupboards in my home.  It’s rather like a museum, which is perfectly appropriate to my interests and personality.  (I work at 2 museums.) When I think of my collecting behavior, it probably started with rocks and “glassies” (beach glass) as a kid.  As an adult, I collected eggs…a symbol of the Trinity, of life, and nature to me.  Now, most of my egg collection is in storage, and I have begun accumulating elephants (mostly from Steve’s Aunt Rosie, who, having a habit as a flea market addict and having identified my taste, seems to present me with additions every time I see her!).  Elephants are a symbol of matriarchal wisdom and compassion to me.  My first beloved stuffed animal was Babar.  I treasure the idea of elephants in the wild and feel great pain at their destruction.  I would like to see some in their natural habitat some day. 

But there is something that I collect and value even more, I think.  I keep them close to me in places where I see them every day: on my computer screen, on my phone screen, on my living room shelves and in great boxes under my bed.  They are photographs of my family.  I’m guessing this is something that most people on the planet treasure…maybe hidden in a chest, tucked into a scrap of cloth, hanging on a chipping plaster wall or stashed in a suitcase in less technologically developed cultures.  In fact, in our “museum inventory”, we have quite a few photographs of complete strangers, gleaned from estates sales – black and white faces in various poses, symbols of human connection.  One day I’d like to give them new life in some art form so they might be treasured once again.

Around the World in 24 Hours

Milwaukee can be a rather uninspiring place in the dead of winter. Not that the light, feathery, cotton candy snow that piled up overnight wasn’t beautiful. As we walked to the breakfast cafe to meet Steve’s mother, we came up with an alphabetical list of adjectives for this particular day’s precipitation. I don’t want to complain about the temperature hovering around zero degrees Fahrenheit, although it is a favorite local custom. There are much better ways to engage the imagination, and I live in a house which reminds me of this every day.

 Scholar & Poet Books is the name of our other roommate. The drafty, old duplex we share rises over 4 levels: basement, first floor, second floor, and attic. She occupies every level and every staircase. She completely fills “my” closet while some of my clothes have languished in suitcases under the bed for 3 years. I am learning to appreciate her presence instead of begrudging her seeming dominance. In fact, I think I am coming around to choosing her company.

Scholar and Poet I

 After Sunday breakfast with Mom, we returned to her, eager to taste her bounty. Samplings for the day included Irish, French, Argentine, Tibetan and Yiddish. She expands our consciousness, delights our senses and supports our livelihood and our dreams. Her body is an amalgam of tens of thousands of books and CDs with a few hundred other artifacts thrown in. She is library, concert hall and museum. She is introvert heaven.

 We started by reading aloud a poem by W. B. Yeats, “A Prayer for My Daughter”, the howling North Atlantic wind of the Irish verses being matched by the Wisconsin bluster that rattled our windows. After delving a bit into Yeats’ biography, Steve then began his daily business of listing our friend’s appendages for sale while I went downstairs to do the dishes and make bread. After lunch, while the loaves baked, we began to discuss our plans to travel to Tibet. Internet research prompted a search through our stacks to find more information on that side of the planet. Steve came down with 6 books of varying relevance. When the bread was safely out of the oven, we went upstairs to watch a DVD, Manon of the Spring, having watched Jean de Florette just weeks before. This emotional tale of French village life transported us visually and linguistically to another world in a simpler century. I tried, unsuccessfully, to pick out the movie’s musical theme on my harmonica before returning to the kitchen to make dinner.

 When we’d finished our meal and our wine, we retired to the bedroom to peruse the wall of jewel cases. We settled on a CD of Argentinian folk songs and dances by Suni Paz. In contrast to the Irish ballads we lit upon at first, these undulating rhythms drew us deeper into the sultry passions beneath our awakened senses…

 Fueled by a solid Monday morning breakfast, we dove into the business of packaging our sales, accompanied by Moishe Oysher singing Yiddish, bluesy, vaudeville, Hollywood-like tunes. I have no idea what they were about, but his passages of improvised “scatting” made me think of Tevye stomping and shaking around in his barn, pouring out his desires to be a rich man. One of the books we packaged was sent to a Jewish community center in New York; it was a children’s book called Klutzy Boy. It made me laugh.

 The anthem of my Alma Mater, Scripps College, starts: “Strong in the strength of all, venturing together, searching, exploring the life of the mind…” In the midst of a Milwaukee winter, this is the antidote to cabin fever. I’m grateful to be shacking up with Scholar & Poet Books.

(author’s note: to browse our inventory listed on A.B.E. Books, click HERE. To visit our eBay Store, click HERE.)

© 2014, essay and photographs, Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved