Wednesday, August 31, 2011

JOSEPH CORNELL'S VISION OF SPIRITUAL ORDER

THE PARABLE OF THE WISE AND FOOLISH VIRGINS, DETAIL, 1838-1842
WILHELM von SCHADOW
Yesterday, I wrote of Charles Simic's wonderful Dime-Store Alchemy, a book about artist Joseph Cornell and his magical assemblage/boxes.

Today I want to quote from another book about Cornell--Lindsay Blair's Joseph Cornell’s Vision of Spiritual Order:

When we turn to Cornell’s public art, there is a great body of works that can be classified as existing somewhere between the dossier and box construction, revealing that not everything reached a single, final, fixed form. His approach meant that it was very difficult to stop things flooding in once the process had been set in motion. Everything was fluent, fluid and contingent—part of the process…The uniquely individual viewpoint captured and frozen as a moment in time was not always possible, given Cornell’s way of working. Certainly, a quality of stillness is apparent in much of his work, even in moving pictures and in his use of stills, but this was only one side of the artist and his method, for there is constant movement, too...

What we cannot but be made aware of is, within the whole associative process, the importance Cornell attached to chance connections. He used these chance connections and built them into his obsession as if they were somehow symbolically meant. Synchronicity is seen as a signal, a guide to be trusted. All manner of unlikely relationships are thus established. Even so, they are not thought of as fate or as coincidence, which are seen as outside agencies, but as quite the opposite—the mind as director, albeit at time the unwitting director of association. Cornell developed strategies to encourage his mind to make connections, to be in a state of readiness, of receptivity. The mind thus enables the artist to escape from seeming fixities and he is free to establish alternative histories through hitherto unseen connections. Thus Bacall becomes associated with Delacroix and Cinderella, with penny arcade machinery and Christian Science through his receptivity to other associations than the ones Hollywood had impressed upon her.

JOSEPH CORNELL'S CELLAR WORKSHOP
photo: Hans Namuth
I find these ideas of connectivity and receptivity captivating. Cornell’s "method” was to collect huge amounts of ephemera—shells, old diaries, album covers, etc. That’s more or less my "method," too, except the stuff I collect is mostly intangible. And there are files of it—quotes, little bits of music, poems, novels, letters, things I’ve seen on my walks, the Gospels of course, and then I make connections, sometimes through decades or centuries.

"Everything was fluent, fluid and contingent—part of the process"…As if to underscore the point, one of the Gospel readings last week was the parable of the wise and foolish virgins. And somehow Joseph Cornell seemed to fit right in...

Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom. And five of them were wise, and five were foolish. They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them: But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept. And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him.

Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps.

And the foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil; for our lamps are gone out.

But the wise answered, saying, Not so; lest there be not enough for us and you: but go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves.

And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut.

Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us.

But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not. Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh.
[Matthew 25:1-13]

The wise for Christ, let’s not forget, are very different than the wise of the world. The wise are often to be found at the edges. The wise are childlike. The wise tend not to fit in. Being fluent and fluid and receptive is the oil with which we, along with the wise virgins, keep our lamps lit. Because then everything becomes lit from within. Then we see that everything is, or can be, a gift: old dolls, decrepit diaries, discarded buttons. Difficult people. Even pain. Everything is a reflection of the underlying spiritual order and the order is love. You don't want anything lost; you shrink at the thought of destroying a single hair on a human head.

The foolish virgins aren’t the ones who forgot to do their shopping. The foolish virgins are the ones who aren't awake to the crazy-ass gift.

THE WISE AND FOOLISH VIRGINS
WILLIAM BLAKE, 1882

3 comments:

  1. This is a wonderful wake up call. I needed the reminder about the utility of scrips and scraps. Whenever I feel empty of writing material, Annie Dillard comes to mind, and the glorious essay she created from a fleeting glimpse of a weasel.

    Yes, indeed, everything serves, if we keep our lamps lit and stay awake to receive.

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  2. Fantastic, Heather! "Being fluent and fluid and receptive is the oil with which we, along with the wise virgins, keep our lamps lit. Because then everything becomes lit from within [YES!!!]...The foolish virgins are the ones who aren't awake to the crazy-ass gift. [OH YES!!!]"

    I have been so into this "being lit from within" idea recently. You just nailed it on the head. Thanks!!!

    "Cornell developed strategies to encourage his mind to make connections, to be in a state of readiness, of receptivity." Would love to know more about that...

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  3. If I do nothing else of use today, I will at least have read this nourishing post, which amounts to so much. I so love your concluding thought.

    Credo quia crazy-ass . . .

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