Friday, June 12, 2015

Notes on Some Sculptures of Zvi Lachman by Jamey Hecht Sept. 2003 NY Arts Magazine

Zvi Lachman is an Israeli sculptor. I read a brief catalogue of his work and looked at his website, and though there was no mention of the Holocaust in it, the experience of contemplating these great sculptures, for me, involves broader thoughts about the human condition, Jewish history, theodicy, suffering, and so on. I'd like to share those thoughts.

Judaism, Europe, and modernity together constitute a problem that exceeds history's philosophical horizon. In other words, there is no figuring it out.  Death is at the heart of it, where a living God would be if the ancient world had continued. That world was not merely broken, like the father's arm in Lachman's Akkedah sculpture; it was shattered. Contemporary Jewish thought is still circumnavigating this problem, always on the inside of its infinite perimeter.  David Blumenthal's Facing the Abusing God figures the Holocaust as an episode of dysfunctional parenting, a borderless explosion of the story of Abraham and Isaac and the knife, from Genesis 22.  This has to be right, as surely as Alice Miller's work on rage and abuse has political implications like those explored by Robin Karr-Morse in Ghostsfrom the Nursery: Tracing the Roots of Violence; Michael Milburn in The Politics of Denial, and the great Hannah Arendt in Origins ofTotalitarianism.  In his Tremendum, the late Arthur Cohen surrendered the power of speech in the face of the Shoah by calling it "the caesura," the gap in Jewish reality that no thought can fill. As Wittgenstein says, "Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent": but it's necessary to speak about that silence, and criticism is what avails to speak so.

Zvi Lachman's sculptures are strong enough to evoke many layers of earliness, from the originary Modernism of Giacometti, down toward the archaism of extinct hands on clay.  Whereas the paintings explicitly allude to seminal masters like Rembrandt and Velasquez, art-historical reference in the sculptures is more subtle and attenuated. 

The 1998 seated figure of The Poet seems to quietly evoke Max Klinger's Beethoven of 1902.  
Lachman's sculpture builds the allusion (if it is an allusion) out of the unthinkable distance between them, a distance much greater than 96 years.  Sublime, transgressive, German, Klinger's supra-romantic apotheosis of the composer spills over into the 20th century from an aestheticism that was already overripe in 1902. Beethoven's fate was to dissolve into the Wagnerian disaster that appropriated his ambition. Two nationalist wars (each of which dwarfed Prussia's martial adventure of 1871) eviscerated the promise of the Enlightenment and turned Schiller's Ode to Joy into indecent noise. The rejection of Beethoven by Wittgenstein, Adorno, and Thomas Mann became binding upon every listener, every reader, and everyone who gazes on the figurative sculptures of the modern world.

The love and pain in Lachman's sculptures of his father bespeak the miserable sunset of the West, in which nuclearism finally drives the human image off the canvas. But they also reassert this human image, in an act of artistic (not religious) faith that presses out toward (compromised) survivorship and (non-inevitable) progress.  His father's meliorist socialism is gone, but the artist is still alive, still Jewish, still able to resist the seductions of nationalism, and still making art.  Lachman the Elder is grounded, merged with the situated chair whose long sides recall those of Beethoven's throne, cleared of all its mythographic friezes.  Both his feet are planted on the step. Though the robe covers his hands, the surface has nothing to conceal: King Lear is in plain sight, whether we perceive an old man or the tragic consciousness made flesh.

Exodus 20:4 is unambiguous: "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth."  Islamic art has kept to this requirement; Christian art has overcome it through the idea that God's incarnation made his image a human one, whose representation must therefore be more than permissible. Jewish art (according to, for instance, Anthony Julius in Idolizing Pictures: Idolatry, Iconoclasm, and Jewish Art), repeats the Abrahamic gesture from that famous Midrash in which the young patriarch breaks the idols in his father's workshop.  Lachman's Akkedah (the "Binding" of Isaac for sacrifice) encodes this breakage where the terrible diagonal is interrupted; the father's arm (or it may be the rope) has a gap in it.  Is this the beginning of Isaac's eventual reprieve?  Or is it a breakage in the story?  Lachman seems to ask: which is the blessing, the bond (Akkedah) of Jewish identity, or the lifesaving break in that bond?  The knife that would have sacrificed Isaac is the same knife that cut the rope instead.  The Akkedah story ends with God's promise to make the Hebrews flourish: "I will bless thee… and I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand upon the sea shore" (Genesis 22:17).  Of course this blessed chosen-ness is also a curse, and the trans-rational numbers of God's fertility poem have their dark side in that equally unthinkable number, six million.

Here are the titles of some of Lachman's sculptures, which we might sort into three groups:

  1. Witness Head, Distant Gaze, Cello – Woman, Rested Head 
  2. Isaac, Akkedah 
  3. My Father In a Robe, Face to Face with My Father (the Chess Players).  

The first group conforms to that class of traditional titles which archivists applied to works by Renaissance artists whose models' names had been lost (e.g., Head of a Man) though they do render an historically specific face, it is an anonymous one. Rested Head might be anybody. The next group inherits the convention of religious art that begins when Greek sculptors craft a male nude from life and call it Poseidon or Apollo. Like these, the biblical Isaac has a name. Such sculptures have names which denote specific figures, whether historical or mythic--but these do not imply any claim that the model was selected because his features resemble those of the historical Jesus or the invisible Apollo. Last, the sculptures of the artist's intimates are a further step in the direction of individuality, since they point to one man in history, with both a specific face and a name. 

And yet the power of these works involves a mirroring of the human image down the generations, as the two men face one another across the chessboard.  
Some months ago, my 92-year-old grandfather lay dying in a hospital bed.  My chair, my father's chair, and the deathbed formed a triangle.  In such a situation there is nothing to be done, and you keep watch and you collect your thoughts.  I said this strange thing: "Now I'm in this chair.  One day I'll be in that chair.  And then one day I'll be in the bed." The men in Lachman's "Chess Players" are firmly situated in space, and their genealogy situates them in time; one of them is younger.  And yet not so: compared to the bronze, compared to the God (real or not), compared to the Jewish People, there is no age difference between any particular father and his son, caught as they are in a game of begetting and dying that foreshortens individuality into a grain of sand (Genesis 22: 17).  There are no pieces on the board: pawns and kings come and go; matches are won and lost; but the game itself is not mortal.  Like Rodin, Zvi Lachman can build a human being out of bronze because with one hand he grants it an identity, and with the other he makes that identity into a cipher (what Lear's Fool called "an O without a figure").   Sculpture is the lesson of time taught in the language of space. 
The Poet

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

No Place in the Universe Has Elements Not Found on the Periodic Table

I meet lots of people whose open-mindedness is not shaped by any knowledge of the constraints on the diversity of phenomena in the world. For example, the integers are universal, and the elements instantiate the integers, from 1proton (Hydrogen) to two protons (Helium) on up to heavy elements with nanosecond lives that end when their giant heavy nucleus decays. People assume it is possible that other worlds, elsewhere in the galaxy, have elements that do not appear on the periodic table. They often insist on this, because other worlds are surely a matter that calls for open-mindedness.

Read the Periodic Table of the Elements from left to right, row by row, and watch the building of reality as proton after proton is added to the nucleus to make each element. I don't mean that the actual elements are formed by a process of adding protons; I mean it heuristically, that is, as an aid to thought: the nucleus of each element on the table is one proton larger than the nucleus of its predecessor.  How they get formed is a matter of the life cycles of stars, including the formation of heavier-than-iron elements in supernova conditions. But let's bracket out for a moment the diachronic, time-bound processes by which the elements are formed, and just look at the synchronic snapshot of the current situation. The world is composed of energy, spacetime, and these hundred elements. The miracle of physical chemistry is that a primate came to understand just how the numbers spell out the physical world; how it is that the addition of a proton to the nucleus gives rise macroscopically to a completely different substance; how the healthful precious silver of 47 protons becomes the toxic heavy metal cadmium when a 48th proton is present.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

God's Big Job

Suppose, for a moment, that there is a God.
God’s job is very large.­ It includes at least two (maybe only two?) jobs. He has to create the world. He has to govern it.
He has to launch the spatio-temporal world from within a non-spatio-temporal eternity. He has to govern the world in a way that allows for gratuitous-suffering-without-recourse, while retaining His attributes of greatness (omnipotence) and goodness (omnibenevolence).  As history happens (with its Holocausts, its wars, its plagues and famines and fires) the stain of cruelty and indifference keeps spreading toward these two attributes of God, and they keep receding in a process of apologetics and intellectual strategic retreat.
The Watchmaker argument (that God created the universe, imparted some sort of internal momentum to it, and sat back to watch it change) feels silly. If there is a God, the God somehow has to pervade everything; viewed theistically, everything bespeaks the God, from the experience of this or that object’s presence, to the general fact of experience itself. There can’t be a dichotomy of the sacred and the profane if all of it is God’s work. Human free will can destroy the local world called Earth (and it has), but human nature is still an expression of the Creator’s nature. Not because it says so in the Bible (which it does, e.g. Gen. 1:26), but because the idea of God tends to include the idea that everything which exists is, one way or another, the product of His will. God’s world has the character that we experience it to have, and both the world and we in it are artifacts of the same divine mind. As is made clear in texts like the Book of Job, the Iliad, and the Gilgamesh, this is a world defined partly by loss and death, a distribution of pain and deprivation that is not reducible to reward-and-punishment. God cannot be trusted. It’s common for God to sustain people, and it’s common for God to crush people like insects.
Piety is a system for governing persons and communities; piety is a way to cope with the infinite gap between the mortal and the divine. Unless there is some revealed religion (and I don’t think there is such a thing), all piety comes from our side, not God’s; we write the contracts of morality wherein a currency called virtue buys a thing called happiness, but God does not sign these contracts. He does not write books and send them down from Heaven in a basket with a very long rope. Piety is not the thing Job thought it was: a prophylactic against future harm, a charm against divine abuse and divine neglect, the demonstrative show of utter compliance that aims to mollify an unpredictable and arbitrary authority of unlimited power. I used to say that religion/piety is like the dead mouse that a cat brings to its wise, mighty, provident human owner; the mouse is useless to the human, but she appreciates it because she knows it is absolutely the best the cat can do. Another analogy is the dress made by a little girl for her Mother; the dress is tiny and lopsided, and Mommy can't possibly wear it, but its value is great because her daughter made it out of gratitude. 
The trouble is, gratitude is mixed with horror and terror when the Parent is an unpredictable and arbitrary authority of unlimited power, rather like an alcoholic parent with borderline personality disorder. After Auschwitz, it's a little crazy to pray the prayers of gratitude even if one is currently loaded with blessings, because it's been shown that all mortal persons (human or otherwise) and states of affairs are subject to sudden reversals that eventuate in soul-crushing agony, no matter how pious people are. It's a bit like having your bags subject to arbitrary search by police, such that if they decide to plant drugs on you, you could rot in jail forever without charge or trial. This kind of arbitrary power is politically justified by the creation of an evil bogeyman, from whom the intrusive and capricious police are busy protecting us; but who plays that role for God? Why should He permit a Devil to slaughter his children? Or if there is no Devil, and human beings are responsible for evil, we can plead as Socrates did, that we are "in need, not of punishment, but of instruction." 
That leaves open the question of "natural evil," which was brought into terribly sharp focus by the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. I can't possibly believe that my good fortune is linked to my having prayed the correct prayers correctly, when millions of other people, plenty of whom were surely at least as pious and at least as innocent as myself were burned to ashes in Pompeii ("natural evil") or, indeed, in the ovens of the Nazis (not so natural).
It could be that we have not avoided destroying the biosphere because we could not have avoided it. Having evolved (in God’s world) to use all the available resources, we do just that, until the limits of our planet are reached and five or six billion people die off in a giant crash (of climate change, pollution, and depletion). This conduct is strangely similar to being told not to eat a potent magic fruit, and being unable to refrain from doing so because of the nature of human desire (itself an artifact of God’s creativity in making us). The fruit was a shortcut to a “knowledge of good and evil” that is normally acquired in a cumulative, difficult, lengthy, incremental process of learning and suffering, harming and being harmed, helping and being helped. The fossil fuels that provided the energy for our destruction of the biosphere and doomed the human project were also a shortcut to power that would otherwise be acquired through labor, a cumulative, difficult, lengthy, incremental process of learning and suffering, harming and being harmed, helping and being helped. This, it turns out, is the eventual meaning of the story of the Fall: all is lost by a hubristic grasping at shortcuts. 
The Comforters of Job urge him to propitiate their contract-signing God of reward-and-punishment. But Job knows he has already done that, to no avail. His experience has proven that their God is a social artifact, and at the end of the book (Job 42:7), God Himself speaks from the whirlwind and affirms that Job is correct; the comforters are wrong; God is the wild spirit that invented predation and death and sex and music, not a giant human king or magistrate with an accounting ledger on his giant desk in Heaven.
I've been reading an amazing and highly sophisticated 2009 book about the two hemispheres of the brain, called The Master and His Emissary, by Ian McGilchrist. 
Broadly speaking, the Left Hemisphere sees the world in terms of logic, linear phenomena, and continua of discrete units comprising rigid categories--all of which conduces to control and effective manipulation of the environment for personal survival. The Right Hemisphere can tolerate paradox and slip right past it with a subtly wise smile like the Mona Lisa's; it is gestalt-oriented, holistic, interested in the uniqueness of individual people and things, and able to tolerate ambiguity and even ambivalence. McGilchrist doesn't discuss theism (or if he does, I haven't read that far yet), but it seems to me safe to say that in general, it is the Left Hemisphere that insists that God must come from somewhere in spacetime. The concept of eternity is entirely foreign to it. Recall part 21 of the Fifth Point in Six Theosophic Points (1620) by Jacob Boehme (1574-1624): 
Here external Reason says: God has created the soul in flesh and blood in the outer world, what harm can that do it? This Reason knows no more of the soul's origin than a cow does of a new stable door. She looks at it, and it seems to her to be strange; so also to external Reason the inner world seems to be something strange. 
I guess the way to tie all this together is to note that the most destructive idea in the history of the world is dominionism, rooted in (once again) Genesis 1:26: And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. That's the God of Exodus and Leviticus, who makes deals and assigns prizes and torments. It is not the wild God of Job and Ecclesiastes who does whatever the fuck He feels like doing, no matter the implications for people's well-being, for better or worse: "As flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods;" says King Lear, "they kill us for their sport." 
This little essay has been a representative snippet of my endless, so-far futile search for A Plausible God who would somehow be available to human relationship. Apparently there is none. 
Now about those methane clathrates...