Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Mondrian on Ash Wednesday

I (almost) blamed Mondrian for my (almost) forgetting Ash Wednesday this year. In the days leading to it, I had nothing else in my mind other than improving my lecture on the Dutch abstract painter for my modern art survey class. I checked out new books and scanned new images in order to make the perfect PowerPoint. I wanted every image in the presentation to be thoroughly researched and then studied closely, and every slide ought to tell a story (for instance, the influence of Cubism, the problem of the diagonal, the move from lozenge to geometric shape, the difference between him and the rest of De Stijl). Even more importantly I wanted to have something compelling to tell my students beyond mere facts. Like a 19th-century Kunstwissenschaftler, I believe that art history should not be taught as a catalogue of works. Nor should students be treated like tourists in a museum: they are not here to be entertained. The rigor and fastidiousness of Mondrian must be presented in the right way so as to both challenge, dazzle and awaken the students from their habitual West-Coast stupor.

The lecture was successful: I got worked up preparing for the lecture, and I got really worked up delivering it. The students were excited to find out that Mondrian was right: the diagonal ruins everything, it seduces your eyes, it makes you focus on one area in the painting instead of giving general attention to the entire picture, and it deludes you into thinking that there is a little figure somewhere making faces at you (c.f. 1914 Oval Composition at the MoMA). I also found out that the majority of them have never seen a Mondrian in person. That’s something to aspire to, says Professor Cheng. One student came to see me after the class and told me how much she enjoyed “that last artist.” She realized the difficulty of abstract art when taken seriously. This is pretty good for a first lesson in Mondrian, I thought. How gratifying it is to know that Mondrian’s permutations of perfection still resonate today with our young, as long as we explain to them in the right way.

I was feeling rather pleased with myself when I found an e-mail from Gale: Don’t forget to get ash-ed this year! Suddenly the horror and sense of dejection from last year came upon me. By now Gale knows how good I am in missing feast days. One year I missed Palm Sunday twice in a day because my clocks and watches were not adjusted to daylight saving’s time. Last year I missed Ash Wednesday service, which I had remembered in the morning but forgotten at night, having been absorbed by my assistant-professor-frantically-preparing-for-lecture mode. I walked around the desolate streets of Eugene at around 8 p.m. in the evening, looking for a service, and I just missed the Episcopal service at St. Mary’s downtown, which ended at 7:45 p.m. In brief, I did get ash-ed last year, but through rather un-orthodox means (thanks to the good office of St. Mary’s young parish priest at the time). The important thing was to realize how abandoned, “left out,” as it were, I felt, when I entertained the idea of not having participated in Ash Wednesday service and therefore not having begun Lent the right way and therefore will not be “clean” for Holy Thursday and therefore the whole Triduum will be ruined and therefore the Resurrection of our Lord on Easter will not have the same meaning, etc and etc. In short, the world will come to an end.

Thanks to Gale, I didn’t miss Ash Wednesday this year, but I went to a Roman service on campus (it was the closest one at hand). The sanctuary was completely packed (so many Catholics in Eugene!) As is the case with Roman parishes in Eugene, it’s where you see all the people of color that you don’t see anywhere else in this town. I sat next to an elderly French woman, and all around me were Hispanics, Filipinos, South and East Asians, Afro-Americans as well as whites. The congregation looked like the utopia of the diversity initiative of the University of Oregon, who cannot seem to get the percentage of minority students to go into the double digits.

The priest had an affect typically associated with gay men, and he opened the service with a sassy reproach. “I’d like us to take time to look around and welcome the newcomers, many of whom probably don’t come to weekly Sunday mass [cough, cough].” The mixture of reprimand and affection in his tone appealed to me. It manages to scold and tolerate failure at the same time. That’s a trick I have to steal for my students who show up only on Wednesdays for the quiz, I thought. After all, what is Ash Wednesday but an opportunity to reflect on finitude? The important thing is that my students did come to class, just like the church-slackers who come running to the chapel on important days. When we do come back, moreover, God is as content and satisfied as Professor Cheng when she watches her students writing industriously in little green exam books in class.

But industry and discipline are both hard to come by. The priest tells us to fast, but admits that he himself is not particularly hungry: “I already had my meal today and it was good.” The strange thing is that God loves us anyway, as the priest told us over and over again, and I could not help feeling overwhelmed by what Gale used to refer to as the “kitsch-factor of Christianity.” In fact, my very first impression of Christians was in fact that they were “cheesy” people who could not stop talking about “love.” But is there something philosophical behind the “kitsch-factor”? At least for Episcopalians and Catholics, there is the strange fact that we can stray as far and as long as possible, we are still welcomed back to the church whenever we do decide to show up. This was the miracle that struck Jean Cocteau, who, when he finally returned to the Catholic church, wrote to the theologian Jacques Maritain of an angel who had been “saving his seat” ever since he left, in the hopes that he’d be back one day.

Who is welcome to the church? “Sinners, sinners!” says the priest, waving his hand energetically to signal his role as the first-sinner-among-equals. Yet it doesn’t really make sense. How can God love sinners as much as he does the righteous? It doesn’t seem fair. Unless, it suddenly dawned on me, sinners are the ones who testify to the existence of God more than anyone else. Sinners make God be because they need God more than anyone else. Thus, in a strange way, it also kind of makes sense. I think of an analogy from the classroom: Student A is intelligent, industrious and independent. Student B is confused, often absent in class, and likes to come whining at my office hour. Student A is easier on me but student B needs me more. If I do my job properly, I would give him/her more than what I give student A. Thus, in a paradoxical way, it is student B who makes me the good professor that I am. As Gale said to me once, the good student doesn’t make us a good teacher; s/he merely deludes us into thinking that we’re good. It’s the bad or mediocre student who gives us a chance to become the good teacher that we should all strive to be. So in the end, it does comes out even. God gives more to sinners than to the saints because sinners need God more.

So what’s in it for student A, or the “good one” who exerted almost no pressure on the teacher? I was a student A, so were many of my friends in college. These are motivated people who had high expectations for themselves. Some of us strive for perfection so much that we cannot let ourselves off the hook. But the will to perfection and the self-persecution that results from failure are in fact the other face of hubris, which God does not commend. After psychoanalysis, who can deny the exalted sense of election, the glory of martyrdom, the sadomasochistic power that an individual permits him/herself to feel when s/he succeeds in persecuting him/herself? As Bernanos’s young country priest says to a parishioner who condemned herself to a life of perpetual self-reproach, God also wants us to have mercy on ourselves. Since each of our souls belongs to God, to be unforgiving toward oneself is also a way of disrespecting God. Judging and sentencing oneself is pretending to do what only God has the power to do. After all, beyond the desire to regain mastery, is there not a more devious motivation behind someone’s taking the whip into his or her own hand, namely, to outshine the other fellow human beings in the competition for virtues, so as to have priority seating in the concert hall called paradise?

My Ash Wednesday ended with a concert of eighteenth-century music, performed by faculty in the School of Music at the university. It took place in the lobby of the university museum, with makeshift chairs and a small staff. The space was packed and many of my friends in the community were there. The leading musician of the chamber ensemble was Marc Vanscheeuwijck, a musician and professor of musicology, who gave a brief presentation about the program entitled “Le concert galant.” It consisted of music written right after the end of the Baroque era but cannot yet be considered as classical. It included pieces by Heinichen, Schiffelhoz, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Platti, Mattheson, De Fesch and Blavet.

As I listened to the energetic and heartened performance, I understood what the leader of the ensemble referred to the mixed, irregular character of the music. I also could not help remarking how un-Mondrian this music is, so much it embodies qualities that he had abhorred: heterogeneity, lightness and, yes, pleasure. Furthermore, due to the non-standardization of eighteenth-century instruments and their relative imprecision (we had learned earlier that cellos of the period did not have to have a fixed number of strings), the music inevitably sounded out of tone to my “musical ear,” or what the Anglophone calls the perfect pitch. This music is the opposite of perfection. At one point the flutist had to cough and restart the piece. Yet why was I enjoying it so much? Why did I find myself relishing in the specific gifts of each musician: the cellist’s tremendous musicality, the flutist’s fluidity, for instance? Is there something compelling in this music and in this performance, something that becomes obvious to me precisely because we are not dealing with a Beethoven symphony or the Chicago Symphony Orchestra?

As the concert wrapped up with joyful applauses from the community of audience, many of whom were friends of the musicians, I realized, with a mixture of both surprise and relief, how much goodness and joy can be shared in the intermediary space (Zwischenraum) between perfection and finitude. Both – the temptation for perfection and the inevitable limits of being human – are part of God’s plan, but God also means for human beings to have a lot of room to live in between. In-between-ness is what this eccentric eighteenth-century music taught me. Once in a while, one among us will make a go for the extreme, as Mondrian did in painting, Simone Weil did in philosophy and ethics, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer in action. Most of us will not come even close in our entire life times to the inhuman rigor of these individuals and the solitude they were prepared to face. It is therefore a comforting thought that such wingless creatures as we can still achieve goodness through small, gallant leaps, and that the apparent frivolity in this refrain from Verlaine can also be a humble acceptance of our finitude and humanity: “Dansons la gigue!”


Eugene, Oregon