I remember being enthralled in astronomy class the first time I heard about “dark matter.” This is the unknown mass out there providing the gravitational stability needed for luminous structures like spiral galaxies. Although thought to be many times larger than the visible matter in the universe, the jury is still out on what dark matter is composed of. Neutrinos must have mass, some people say, referring to the ghostly particles that burst from the guts of stars each time a particle of hydrogen gets cooked into a particle of helium. Others say the lit galactic arrays are surrounded by fields of Jupiter-sized planetary bodies. No, say others still, dark matter is composed of vacuum fluctuations, the sub-atomic particles that leap out of nothingness into existence, and then disappear again a nano-second later, cancelling themselves out. Whatever the reason, dark matter has always appealed to me as a correlate for the hidden emotional material that supports our distinctly eccentric, often unstable, and occasionally luminous personalities.
If you’re like me, you’re partial to narratives of hope. You want things to work out, for yourself certainly…but also for the people you care about and the traditions you identify with and think are healthy. From childhood on you’ve felt burdened by a sense that something is wrong, a little bit wrong maybe, or maybe a lot wrong, depending on your temperament. We can talk about that sense of wrong-ness as free-floating anxiety, dukkha, original sin – my point is only that, like me, you probably tend to assemble daily experience into story lines – narratives – that make a plausible case for why your world is moving in a less-wrong direction.
I’ve always hoped to dismiss any claims the artist Jeffrey Koons might make on aesthetic legitimacy, but a recent trip to UC Irvine to see Robert Cohen’s production, Abraham and Isaac in Jerusalem, has illuminated why, in all likelihood, this ambition will continue to elude me. For those who take theater seriously, UC Irvine occupies a special place. Since the 1970s, the program, which Cohen helped found, has been a haven for those who share a more European view of how theatrical expression connects to the ongoing project of “civilization.” Theater, from this perspective, is a uniquely embodied mode of feeling-thought that gives form to ineffable mysteries that would otherwise be inaccessible to us. Based on a medieval play, Cohen’s Abraham and Isaac illustrates this capacity, and manages to tap down into the deeper roots of our culture. Sadly, for me, the evening hinges on what can only be described as a Koons moment.
In Santa Fe dramatic thunderstorms are common late on summer days. Afterwards the massive banks of purple clouds will often part, allowing shafts of intense sunlight to angle down, creating sometimes vivid rainbows. At a house near downtown last summer I saw a rainbow like this, clear as a Technicolor dream. I was with a group of young scientists and I watched as their wonder shifted into analytical mode – here is an example of water molecules interacting with rays of refracted light – and then back again toward a more embodied appreciation. The sequence reminded me of the Buddhist saying in which a mountain becomes, for the meditator, something very different …and then, at a later stage, returns again to being just a mountain. Then, as the rainbow faded in the sky, we trooped inside to watch Charlton Heston chew the scenery (and a few other things) in the Sci-fi flick Soylent Green.
It’s hard to know what to say about Charles Koch after reading Jane Mayer’s astonishing expose in the August 30th issue of The New Yorker. American politics have been running hot for decades; finally we can name the source of the fever. Together with his brother David, Charles Koch owns Koch Industries, the second largest private company in the US; only Warren Buffett and Bill Gates are thought to be wealthier. In a remarkably narcissistic and anti-democratic act, the Koch boys long ago anointed themselves the heroic duo who would “rip government out by the roots.” In the grip of this wayward intention, they have, for the past four decades, pumped billions of dollars worth of high-grade hatred into the bloodstream of American politics. From the PR campaigns against Jimmy Carter in the 1970s to the anti-Clinton crusades of the 90s, to the faux populism of today’s Tea Party, the Kochs have pushed the envelope on right wing propaganda while their corporation rakes in mega bucks on the progressive policies they have thwarted.
When we share with a work of art an experience of presence, we come close to understanding art’s intrinsic value. Deploying skill and emotional force, the artist imbues the material with a living, emergent quality that engages the viewer fully, inducing an open stance toward the immediate moment. There is a small awakening to the radical freedom inherent in the embrace of the ever-shifting present.