Monday, March 5, 2007

Cultural embers

The purpose of culture is to remember and create pathways from World 1 (the realm of suffering, duhkha) to World 2 (fulfillment, joy, enlightenment). As such culture is a "world of its own" that I call World 3. Tantra makes it very clear that this culture (including its version of "culture of the self") must be recreated at every moment, and that otherwise it tends downhill towards decay and ossification. A movie I saw last night pictures old culture at a moment not exactly of decay but of dying down, like a wood fire fading to coals. The Hermitage Dwellers is a recent Dutch film in Russian about three old and one young employees of the great St. Petersburg museum who find there a world apart from the continuing darkness and deprivation of the city (still "Leningrad" to the old people who lived through the German siege in the 1940s). The art gives off an afterglow of its original esthetic power and exposure to it--standing close by as if next to a dying fire--is enough to warm the souls of the museum "dwellers," but only if they take regular and sustained doses. Standing next to Rembrandt's "Prodigal Son" the young man, a former soldier with a guilty conscience, irradiates himself with the blissful moment of forgiveness that the art work shows, and the painting seems to translate him into a state of redemtion that is deep and genuine if also partial and fleeting. This, the film seems to say, is the most that old culture can do, give a modicum of comfort and distant intimation of transcendence to men who did not experience the original World 2 moment on which the work rests and lack World 2 moments of their own that these old beauties might find ways to touch more vitally. One thinks of the women in T.S. Eliot's museum "talking of Michaelangelo" or evening-clothed bourgeoisie at the Vienna opera immersed in the "Magic Flute."

Where is new culture today? Do others feel as I do that the last upwelling of nutrients from a lasting World 2 happened in the 1960s? The last great classical composers worked fifty years ago or more, and in popular music where are the equals of the Beatles, Velvet Underground, and Bob Dylan (aside from Mr. Dylan himself, who does not decay musically though he's now post sixty-four). Literature may be an exception here, though surely not in the English novel. And painting, while subject to the same drifiting lack of center (predicted by the great Yeats) does have moments of fierce originality of vision in the work of men who are physically old but still young in art (Cy Twombley and Brice Marden are two). Overall, though, there seems little but afterglow at which to warm our spirits. The only hope I can see, the same hope that was always there, lies in breakthrough to new Worlds 2. At any rate the old culture tells us, admonishes us, that breaktrough is possible and refuses our drift to the couch and the grave.

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