Thursday, September 11, 2014

Some Notes On Sacred Art: Where I Try to Be a Disciple of Gilson

There are many things to say here, too many really, but I’ll restrict myself to a few, and begin with a sharp sarcastic dissent:

Contra Julien Meyrat, Ronchamp’s Notre Dame is not a “success.” It’s an ugly hideous distortion that is only recognizable as a church due to its culling a few brutalized references to traditional Western ecclesial architectural idioms. It has a blunt dumboized steeple, and a nave. Apart from that, it looks like a inflatable funland castle, a parody and mockery of a church, not a place of Catholic worship.

Also, while I absolutely agree with Bob Dugan when he says that art must be “religious” to be meaningful – vested with the transcendent, metaphysically charged – I say his idea that the artist is always necessarily seeking individual immortality thru fame is vulgar, stupid and trite. Prior to the High Middle Ages/Renaissance, most “artists” where anonymous, from Greece to Chartres sculptors and painters (iconographers) and architects are most often unknown to us, posterity.

It is, contra Bob, exactly in the early Renaissance, with artists like Giotto, then all the “Renaissance masters” where “individual expression” and celebrity status for artists begins to trump the purity of religious expression (“look at me! See how *I* can paint!” “See how beautiful my mistress is as a model for the Virgin!”) that throws the emphasis off the numinous, the Divine, and upon themselves, beginning the great sucking cycle of solipsism that is “modern art.”

It is no longer a Divine iconography, but a masturbatory celebration of self. *That* is why it fails, and why anything that breaks with tradition as an unique expression of some individual, without deep reference to the inherited idiom, the symbolic and aesthetic patrimony we have received, will fail. It has become a form of idolatry, not liturgy.

Liturgia after all is the work of the people throughout all time and space worshipping our God: the opposite of solipsism, idolatry.

And this – most viscerally and radically of all – is why I dissent from Fr. Reese’s ideas on how to “reform” the liturgy. He is more of the same. More hermetic rejection of tradition, more self referential disdain for what has been received, more arrogant presumption that we can and should radically alter everything so that it can work better for us, now. There is no regard on his part for the future, no regard for what we have been entrusted to pass on to our children. There is, in short, absolutely no humility in him.

This spiritual positivism is the cancer of the age, what is killing art, what is killing mystery, what is killing faith. His is the same mentality that sees myth as being synonymous with falsehood, rather than being the heart of all meaning and truth.

I cannot express how much his attitude disgusts and angers me. Enough already. Enough. Leave us our myths. Leave us our sacraments, our mysteries. Let the dusk and tallow smoke envelope us, let the silence embrace us, let the song of God blossom in the quiet of our hearts.. Just leave us alone with our saints and God. Just take your noise and struck awkward poses and go, already, will you?


Monday, April 14, 2014

Lakshmi the Friendly Temple Mascott

Outside the temple of Ganesh (the elephant headed hindu god) in Ponducherry - the former French colony about four hours south of Chennai by bus - they keep this female elephant named Lakshmi - (like Lakshmi Singh for any you devotees of NPR) -  who is named after the consort of Vishnu, Lakshmi the goddess of prosperity. 

Hinduism - which I may hold forth on here at some point - is somehow both deeply off-putting, even revolting to me, while also sometimes weirdly playful and funny.  Lakshmi just stands outside of the temple entrance, and is fed grass by the worshippers and other passers by.  If you stand close enough, and bow your head, she reaches out and touches - "blesses" - you with her trunk. Cute, and hilarious. 

I have scruples about being blessed by an elephant, and was a little wary of her: if you notice she is completely unrestrained, and while maybe smallish for an elephant, is still pretty dang big when you are standing next to her. She was very placid both nights I saw her (notice how her head painting changes in the last photo here, it's from the second night) and never moved from her station by the temple door. Still, I felt too much respect to get too close.

Notice too how she is adorned with the Magen David.  There are interesting symbolic tropes in Hinduism, ones that are pretty intriguing. I'll talk here about that topic later.  

Tonight, I'll just give you a brief visual essay of the life and times of Lakshmi, the sacerdotal pachyderm: 


Saturday, April 12, 2014

Photo Montage Upon the Afternoon & Evening of April 11th: Triplicane High Road Near Wallajah Mosque, Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India

Just like India, when it rains, it comes in monsoon force. For over a week I've been unable to post much of anything because the damn internet here wouldn't upload any images except that of the blessed sadhu down there.  Tonight, it's blazing fast.  So, instead of just one image, I'll give you all a whole slew to make up for some lost bandwidth.

All of these pictures were taken on yesterday (Friday) afternoon and evening, and are presented chronologically. These are some of my friends and other folks on my street here in Madras, whom I see every day. 

[The shirt change is due to my having gone to the tailor, where I left that awesome orange shirt to be taken in a bit because it looks like a maternity smock on me..   ]


Friday, April 11, 2014

Eh, Namaste Toi là! Je t'aime!!

 Pray Lodge in this Unworthy Place..
I am back again in Chennai; which has nearly nothing to recommend it to a tourist, which is exactly what charms me about the place. It's just a great welter and tussle of honk hurtle haggle hassle honk Tamil love, heart and passion, and I simply adore it, being here.

The internet wilted with the burgeoning heat this past week, and I have repeatedly failed to get any of the images I've been trying to put up to post.. Tonight things are again miraculously abloom, and the wifi speed is actually quite impressive.  So while I am tired, and have laundry soaking upstairs to bother with before bed, I'll take the tide while it runs to the sea.. Two pictures tonight, I hope tomorrow I'll be able to queue up a whole lot more..


Monday, April 7, 2014

Here I Go, Takin' Pictures of the Navaho..

So, here there's this sadhu (hindu ascetic renunciate, who lives by begging) that I saw by the gate after mass.  He was pretty photogenic, so I naturally stole a bit of his soul with my Kodak click:

really nice beard, too..


Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Picture of the Day: Indian Cubscouts

There were a horde of these little guys out on the street, and they made me laugh, there are certain things that are transnational experiences.  I just had to get a shot to share:


Monday, March 24, 2014

Shrine of St. Thomas the Apostle, Chennai

Saint Thomas the Apostle first brought Christianity here to India in the first century. He was martyred here, on a hill south of city center, near the present airport.  

There are four extant apostolic tombs: Rome for Peter and Paul, Santiago de Compostelle for James the Greater, and Madras for Thomas.  Now I've been to them all. 

The Portuguese built a church here in the 16th Century.  This is it, rather like a large parish church, but called a basilica:

There is a grotto, styled after Lourdes, outside:

The church seen from said grotto:

Seen from across the very busy city street:

As I say, the church is downtown, near the center, on the beach.  The site of the martyrdom, with the extant relics (it seems that the rest of the body was spirited away to Europe) is on a hill in the southern suburbs called Saint Thomas's Mount:

The Tamil like neon, and their taste in iconography runs to the kitsch.. Which is okay, since it reminds me to try and swallow my snobbish pride and grin..

The custom here is to remove shoes, like Muslims do before entering a mosque.

One of the few relics of Thomas left in India.


Sunday, March 23, 2014

Photo Essay of Holy Family: The Local Parish Here in Mamallapuram

These past couple weeks I've been going to mass here in Mamallapuram.  This is what it is like:

The church is rather small, but the congregation of a few hundred overflows into the yard, which is what all the blue plastic chairs are for.

the altar boys.

Notice how the men and women sit separately; the women on Christ's right hand, appropriately enough.

I hope this video works, it's of one of the communion hymns. I adore how Tamil is sing song, and percussive, perfectly accompanied by the drum.  I shot this as inconspicuously as I could with my iphone, which did not focus.. those are my blue socked feet at the beginning, we take our shoes off before entering the church here, like Muslims at a mosque:


After mass, there is Marian prayer, like is common in Europe or many parishes stateside. Then, everyone rushes the front to venerate the statues of the Holy Family there:

They touched the table or base of the statues like the girl is doing here.  I didn't think to bring a candle with me, and they had none there to buy.

I'll get my own stash for future contingency.

So, that's how rural Catholics - who are mostly converts from lower Hindu castes here, and poor - roll in India.  Tomorrow I'll post the shots from the great Shrine of St. Thomas in Madras..


Saturday, March 8, 2014

Concerning Denizens of the Indian Street (A Lenten Post)

I've been holding off on this post for a few days, thinking I would have something sage come to me to say, but I have nothing.  

As you probably are aware, there is profound poverty in India.  Half of the population, of over a billion, subsists on less than a dollar a day.  Two thirds of the larger world's population does the same. 

The Western (and Japanese, there are a few of them about here) tourist comes here with the power of the banks behind them, flush with cash.  Prices here are - for goods and services provided by and intended for these poor - extremely low.  As La La - a girl I met here who lives in the street - put it, "Indian girl cheap, American man expensive."  

There are other things I could say here concerning all this; about for example, say, Mother Theresa and the Western conscience, but I'm not in the frame of mind or heart to hold forth like that tonight. I'll just post some pictures I took of people I've known in Chennai this past month who live in the street - I'd say that they actually are not "homeless" in the Western sense, because their home is somehow the street. Whole extended families, who are not addicts, who engage in rudimentary commerce (selling rice, driving a tuk tuk), who have possessions arrayed about them, and who are in no way molested by anyone, not even the police, live up and down most sidewalks here. They tend even to dress well, and even wear expensive jewelry, so forth.. It is incredible, really.

Here, then, without further commentary, are some of the street people of Chennai, all of them members of the same extended family:


Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Concerning Sacred Cows

The stereotype is true.  Indian streets are in fact teeming with bovine masses. India apparently has 30% of the world's cows, and it is illegal to kill and religiously forbidden to eat them.. the result of which is that they are everywhere, being allowed to wander free, apparently anydamnwhere they please, such as the middle of busy urban streets:

Holy Cowz wandering free..

I've been told they are considered sacred due to the fact they give milk, and that "ghee" or clarified liquid butter is essential to many Hindu temple ceremonies.. the cow is an archetype of the earth and fertility, the bull of virility and fertility, the masculine and feminine. The cow is a surrogate mother, providing milk to children.  The Hindu epic the Muhabharata says "cows represent sacrifice.. they are guileless in their behavior and from them flow sacrifices.. milk and curds and butter.. hence cows are sacred."  Their dung is also used for fertilizer and fuel, and their milk is a staple in the vegetarian diet here.

To quote the Vedas: "The cows have come and brought us good fortune. In our stalls contented may they stay! May they bring forth calfs for us, many colored, giving milk for Indra each day. You make o cows the thin man sleek, to they unlovely you bring beauty. Rejoice our homestead with pleasant lowing. In our assemblies we laud you with vigor."

There are, if you are wondering, McDonald's in India. They do not, however, serve beef. My mind belts in amazement.. As in Israel where they do not put cheese on the beef, and so have no cheeseburgers, India is the one place in the world where they do not have hamburgers. Such delicate sensitivity on the part of Leviathan! They will do whatever it takes, even if it means dispensing with their signature product, to succeed.

Anywhichway, just know that cows do in fact have their way here, and it is in fact rather quite charming.. Even if you often have to step around them and their shit everywhere you go, and when out in the countryside driving at night you have to keep your eyes peeled, else you plow into one. Not so bad as hitting a moose whose legs are much longer, putting their carcass atop your roof, rather than merely your hood and windshield, but still..

Parting thought: maybe Chick fil-A can figure out an Indian angle for their ads someday?  Hmm..


Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Notes from Chennai, with a Few Pictures..

The past month - or three some weeks, really - I have been in Southern India, in Chennai, which the British more famously called Madras.  It's the fourth largest city in India, and the capital of the Dravidian South, center of the state of Tamil Nadu.  

I've been in no mood for the internet, and so have left the blog floating derelict, despite many several requests to put something up here.  But I left Chennai this afternoon, hiring a tuk tuk to take me two hours (!) south to Mamallapuram, where I'll spend the next couple few days or more, as the spirit moves.. 

And the internet connection in the room here tonight is pretty strong.  Much better than the weak wifi that was only available in reception, and that at 25 rupees an hour, at my last digs.. 

And though I'm pretty tapped, verging on slightly exhausted, and really would rather go to bed, I've been making vague promises now for a while, so I'm going to throw something down here tonight about these past few weeks.. 

The scattered upshot: I stayed in what is basically the Muslim quarter of Chennai, at a place actually owned by a mosque, but that has been leased to a Brahmin (that is, Hindu) family for a hundred years, and has been in use as a guesthouse since 1951, since which it has been catering to a foreign (Beat, Hippy, international) clientele. It's a great rambling grubby place, several hundred years old, with no amenities to speak of, beyond a very attentive and helpful staff.  It's the type of place you will either love or loathe.  You have to look beyond the dirt, long stairs with no elevators; and lack of hot water, private bathrooms, air conditioning; and feel the ambience and discover the culture of the place, which is intimate; where if you stay more than a day and venture to talk to anyone, you will have found instant community. 

I hadn't intended to remain so long, it just happened.  That's the way I'm taking this. If something grabs hold of me, I'll be very unlikely to try and pull away unless something else is exerting a stronger pull.. 

I took some photos, not really anything forming a cohesive or comprehensive visual essay, yet perhaps enough to give a sense of what the place is like. 

Here's the unassuming entrance: 

Since 1951.

That institutional blue covers virtually every surface in the place that isn't white, brown or grey.  

This is my 3rd floor room, cooled very effectively by a ceiling fan (that is spinning here, and cannot be seen because the shutter speed is both too fast & slow) and the breeze:

There's a balcony in both front and thru the back.
You need to be careful leaning against things here; the railings, wooden stairways and such are not all necessarily all that sturdy.  Let's just say OSHA would not be all that impressed, and that in the States it would be a lawsuit waiting to happen.  No matter, the ghosts of the place keep guard, you can feel their heedful magnanimity about..

There is also a great tree full of watchful crows guarding the center courtyard, seen here at night:

the great tree
Said courtyard, my room opposite, seen from above, the 3rd story

The Wajullah, or Big, Mosque, owners of the house, as seen from my room balcony.
The mosque of course raucously belts out the call to prayer five times a day, and then burps out "Allah Hua al-Akbar!" or "Allah Hua al-Afdel!" intermittently throughout the day, as the spirit moves them.  It amuses that they - the Believers - are patrons of an institution next door sheltering a bunch of western beer swilling, ganga smoking, backpacker hippies. The world is far more dappled than those who never venture out into it might ever expect.

Here are a few shots of the social scene, not at all exhaustive, because I didn't think to take very many pictures.  People came, people went, every week there was a new set of folks, from all over the world.

The unstated, sporadically scandalous, policy is that Indians were not allowed to mix, due to the potential for culture clash, especially with the women.. The room price is too low (350- 525 rupees - like 5.50 to 8.50 bucks a night) and the culture gap with lower caste Indians too wide, so they "discriminate."

It's yet just another bubble of travelers - not tourists, really, but vagabonds and pilgrims - in an odd faraway place:

In reception, achieving yogic nirvana..
Davida, Raja (i.e. King in Sanskrit) and myself.  All kicking the glasses, note..
Raja (the night reception) and Bella, the English girl..
My digs radiating in the dark
The commune hard at work..
On the roof, at night: these are the choicest digs in the house..

And there, that's been my ramblin' home these past few weeks.  I've got more posts in the tube for the coming week or more, so keep your eyes peeled attentively on this here space..