The SERPENT’S GIFT
“Have a bite?” said the Serpent. “What is it?” said Adam. “Fruit,” said the Serpent, “from The Tree of Good and Evil. They call it … technology.” “Is it good?” asked Adam. “No,” said the Serpent. “It is bitter. But you’ll come to like it, for the fruit bestows immeasurable power over nature.” “I see what you mean,” said Adam. “It is bitter.” “Forgot to mention,” said the Serpent, “Ingest the fruit … and you pay a hefty price.” “Price?” said Adam. “You’ll see,” said the Serpent.
THE GATES of EDEN
As Adam chipped the first stone tool the Gates began to open. The more he chipped, the more they parted, until at long last the Gates spread wide, revealing a spacious world beyond. Hand in hand with Eve, he ventured forth, never noticing the Gates behind had silently sealed shut ...
On a darkling plain Of stony desiccation Where ravens screamed And lizards hid in rocky shadows, “Let us build a tower,” they said, “Up to the light of heaven.” And so by din of centuries Of hammer crack and creak of crane, They thrust the tower ever skyward Past the clouds to heaven’s roof. There they punched a hole in the sky And climbing through found themselves … On a darkling plain Of stony desiccation Where ravens screamed And serpents slid in rocky shadows.
HUMAN HISTORY in a NUTSHELL
Soldier dies. Woman cries. Philosophy wonders why.
QUESTIONS of CONSCIENCE for the ARTIST
Are you one who nails your work to the temple door and cries, "Here I stand and will not move!" Or for sake of social harmony and getting on in the world, do you bend to the winds of propriety and public sentiment?
Are you genuine or merely the ape of fashion? Is your muse the goddess of inner necessity or the whore of the marketplace?
What is the intention of your work? Was that intention fulfilled? And if so, WAS IT WORTH IT?
MAN and TREE
“Tree,” said the man. “Thou art magnificent beyond reckoning.”
“Go away,” said the tree. “I’m synthesizing.”
“Thou art one of God’s finest creations," said the man.
“Appreciate the CO2 you brought," said the tree, "but you’re treading on my roots.”
“God loves thee,” said the man.
"Your god loves trees?" “Uh ... not sure ... but He did mention lilies of the field." "Have you nothing better to do ... start a war somewhere ... abuse an endangered species?" "He died for your sins, you know.” “What is sin?” “You don’t know?” “Don't mean to be rude,” said the tree, "but if you think fixing carbon is easy ... try it sometime.” “Fool of a tree! You have no idea of powers greater than yourself!” “Fool of a man! The only power greater than me is your insolent imagination!”
The ARTIST and the LUNATIC
The artist and the lunatic descend, step by step, on a similar journey into the savage, unmapped wilderness of the unconscious. The difference is the artist comes back (most of the time).
The LIMITS of ART
A youth raced through crowded streets, flinging his paintings in furious indignation ... I accosted him thus:
"Young man, why throw away your work in such wanton abandon?" Catching his breath, he proclaimed, "The world is a place of sorrow and abominable injustice." "So it is," I agreed. "My works," he continued, "are utopian visions that will transform this world's baseness into beauty and love." "You must know," I countered, "that art cannot possibly ..." "You lie!" he cried. And ran on, leaving a trail of discarded canvas.
EMPIRES of TIME
History throws up empires like a dog vomiting on the beach. And just as quickly time's waters wash the stench out to sea. Only ideas remain. The visions of the poet, artist and scientist ... only they have permanence. Yet, inevitably, we exalt the empire builders more than the visionaries. One should never forget: Napoleon and Alexander were merely great ...
But Michelangelo was divine.
One man sees God in a tree. They lock him away for insanity. A hundred men see God in a tree. They call it "religion."
THREE PERSONS in a BOAT
Three persons sat in a boat, drifting steadily toward the thunder of the falls. The first gazed longingly into an empty bottle. The second raised her arms skyward in desperate supplication. The third sat unnoticed, tracing beautiful patterns in the water with his fingers ...
HOLDING UP the SKY
Women make babies. Men make history ... savage, bloody, interminably violent history. Enough! Time for men to share the reigns of power. Half the sky, you say? ... Better make it four fifths ...
FOUR PILGRIMS VISIT a SAGE
"The world,” said the sage, “is a dark place where men kill for worthless real estate, women are assaulted and children enslaved. “I will pray to the all-loving Father for deliverance,” said the priest. “One must be careful,” said the philosopher, “of hyper-real constructs promoting Hegelian absolutes of antithetical progression.” “I hear,” said the merchant, licking his lips, “there’s profit in the slave trade.” The poet said nothing, but covered his face and wept unconsolably … like an orphan in the night.
The MADMAN in the MARKET
A congested market … a heaving mob of merchants shouting … arms raised in desperate bidding. A madman climbs a central podium, raises his voice above the pandemonium … demands silence …
“Fools!” he shouted. “Your world is dying … your cities drowning … yet all you do is ponder finance?” “He is mad,” they said. “Pay him no heed.” “Species vanish forever in the night of time,” he said. “… yet you do nothing to preserve them?” “He is mad as a dung beetle,” they said. “Forget him. We have business to do.” “Tyranny spreads like a cancer across the realm. Resist now … while there is yet time!” But the merchants only laughed. And their laughter became one with the rising clamor of mercantile transactions. Alas, I am come too soon, he thought, My words are as empty clouds borne away on the winds of greed.
The FOOL and the SAGE
A fool and a sage discoursed eloquently about the nature of time and space. "History," said one, "Is a three-legged tortoise crawling crookedly in circles across the sands of time under a vacant sky." "Wrong!" thundered the other. "History is a half-blind blacksnake slithering from a dark hole toward the glorious sunlight above." A crowd had gathered and applauded loudly at such elegant erudition. But I left uncertain. Who was wise and who was the fool?
The WISDOM of the AGES
A dark tavern … a convocation of luminaries seated … a lull in the conversation …
“Wise sirs,” I spoke up. “We are killing off species right and left. What then must we do to stave off the 6th Extinction?” “If you have two shirts,” said Jesus, “give one to he who has none.” “In Paradise there are things no eyes have seen,” declared Mohammed. “Don’t stress,” said Buddha. "It’s all illusion anyway.” “More wine?” asked Dionysus. “Damn capitalism!” said Marx. “It’s him!” cried Nietzsche, pointing to his cell phone. “The Superman! He’s on his way. He’ll know what to do.” “It’s all in your head,” said Bishop Berkeley. “Bibo ergo sum,” said a drunken Descartes. “Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent,” said Wittgenstein, belching loudly. “I am a dog,” said Diogenes, peeing into a barrel. “Think I’ll self-deconstruct,” said Derrida.
Thus, the lofty conversation continued late into the night, until at long last I wearily drained my cup and departed for home … Wisdom, I mused, has its limits.
TWO THEORIES of ART
Art is a search for truth ... Art is an escape from truth.
Sometimes she stops by the studio like an old friend and fills my head with marvelous ideas. And sometimes she turns aside and pretends she doesn’t know me … as if we’d never met.
The DANCE of the PHILOSOPHERS
Around and around the philosophers go Mystery stands at the center and knows.
COCKTAIL LOUNGE of the MIND
Philosophy is a buxom barmaid serving cocktails in equal measure to artist and scientist. In her company both parties are relaxed, conversation flows freely … ideas exchanged. The scientist orders a dry martini. The artist … a piña colada, with lots of fruit on top.
The ARTISTS SPEAK
Young Artist: I work for myself ... One day the world will stand in awe of my heroic talent ...
Middle-Aged Artist: I work for my family ... for my children, so they will not have to struggle as I have struggled ...
Old Artist: I work for the world ... to leave beauty and meaning for the generations to come ...
Long years I toiled in rain and sleet and under the fire of ten thousand suns, rolling that cursed boulder up a hill, only to watch helplessly as it rolled back down again … until one day …
"Looks like you could use some help."
I turned to see a broad-shouldered man holding a sledgehammer in arms the size of oak trees, his smile ... a string of pearls curled across a face of anthracite.
"No use," I said. "I am cursed by the sins of a misspent youth to push this boulder till the end of time."
"We'll see about that," he said. "Step aside." Lifting his hammer, he brought it down on the boulder with such force the earth shook and lightning flashed. For several heartbeats he swung his hammer, sinews protruding like roots ... a monsoon of sweat raining down massive shoulders. The boulder split and split again ... became a pile of broken pebbles. Together we tossed them over the hill. "You have no idea," I said, "what burden you‘ve lifted from my shoulders. “Glad to be of help,” he said. “Listen," I said. "I know a tavern where the girls are free and the beer cold ... interested?” “Another time. Got some business with the Machine over yon mountain,” he said and walked quickly up the trail. "Hey!" I called. "What’s your name?” But the wind took my voice and he heard me not. Strange, I thought, that one man’s fate can be so easily amended by the sweat of another.
STEEL DRIVING MAN
They say he had arms like oak trees and when he swung his hammer the earth shook and lightning flashed. When the Machine showed up at camp he knew he was in trouble, for any machine that could work faster than a man would put hundreds, perhaps thousands, out of work ... and so...
"Ain't no machine can hammer steel like me!" said John Henry. "You're on," said the Machine.
They went at it, toe to toe, for a mile ... straight up the mountain. John Henry on one side, the Machine on the other, to see who could hammer faster, man or machine. In the end, John Henry beat the Machine by one swing of his hammer. But alas ... he worked so hard his heart gave out and he laid down his hammer and died.
They say in death his smile was a string of pearls curled across a face of anthracite. And that his spirit flew skyward like a thousand silver birds. One of those silver birds came to rest in the heart of a young black boy from Atlanta (later he would become a king and lead his people out of bondage). More silver birds rested in the hearts of others and in my family as well. Like John Henry, I became a steel driving man ... equally fated perhaps to fall one day, hammer in hand fighting the Machine to the end. A good death and purposeful life ... for what more could one ask?
John Henry ... a true American hero. The first in American history to fight the Machine and actually win!
A BIGGER HAMMER
Long seasons I pounded the Machine in vain, Trying to shape it into more amenable form. “Fool!” said the Machine. “Thy puny hammer cannot hurt me!” “In that case,” I said, “I’ll get a bigger hammer.” Looking around I found the biggest hammer of all, The hammer of words, the hammer of language. Now the Machine is fearful … on the run. It knows its days are numbered.
WORDS and the WORLD
The painter paints and charms the world With images compelling. The writer writes to ignite the world In flames of fierce rebellion.
A DEAL with the DEVIL
Long ago ... as an aimless youth adrift the streets of Babylon, I heard the Devil call my name ...
“Got a job for you, son,” he said, grinning as only a devil can grin. "A job that will fill your heart with such joy you'll never want another." “You’re kidding, right?” I said. “You’ll be the happiest man in the realm,” he said. "Your spirit will soar like an eagle. There is however ... a catch.” “Let me guess,” I said. “I have to hand over my immortal soul.” “Nothing so Faustian," he said. "The catch is you’ll be poor.” “How poor?” I asked. “Let’s just say … a Florida retirement is not in the offing.” “Intriguing," I said. "Poverty in exchange for happiness. So what’s the job?” “Making art,” said the Devil. Then he laughed and vanished like mist on wind. I thought long. Assayed my options carefully like a miner weighing gold dust. Finally, I shouted into the silence, “I’ll take the job!”
Thus I became an artist, a shaper of dreams. My days are filled with joy and my nights with the clamor of my creditors.
Where archetypal dreams are sown, In lonely lands beyond the known, Where screams the hawk And wildcats roam, On steeds of thought I ride alone.
The GALLERY of BABYLON
In Babylon stands a gallery whose innumerable chambers and vast halls stretch into unguessed expanses of space and time. Every work of art made by human hand and every work not yet made are housed within its labyrinthine confines.
Once in the Postmodern section, I chanced upon a room filled with a strange species of bird-men. Standing on human legs but with heads exactly like parrots, first one, then another of these bizarre creatures strutted across the floor with great pomp and self-importance, spouting mysterious phrases like deconstruction! or signifier! Thereupon, the rest would puff their chests, nod their beaks vigorously and repeat the same arcane utterances. So great was their cacophony that I covered my ears and ran for the exit ... Doubtless, I thought, there must be other rooms worth visiting.
The CONFUSED HALLS of MODERNITY
In the Gallery of Babylon, one day wandering, I met Rembrandt. We talked of the sweet muse of Beauty And the bitter vision of honest expression. Suddenly, we came upon a naked man squatting, Legs apart, defecating loudly on canvas. "What ...?" An artist," I explained. "He seeks the new." "But the smell!" "Yes," I agreed. "That would be the sweet stench of novelty."
Sometimes the only thing between a man and the abyss is a good laugh. Humor ... never leave home without it!
The CONSOLATIONS of GEOLOGIC TIME
There is some consolation in the knowledge that no matter how badly we savage the planet’s biosphere, in a few million years nature will recover. Species come and species go but the Earth abides forever …