When we have passed a certain age, the soul of the child that we were and the souls of the dead from whom we sprang come and shower upon us their riches and their spells, asking to be allowed to contribute to the new emotions which we feel and in which, erasing their former image, we recast them in an original creation.
You are saying, are you not, I said to Manuelito, that stories have more room in them than ideas?
That is correct, Señor. It is as if ideas are made of blocks. Rigid and hard. And stories are made of a gauze that is elastic. You can almost see through it, so what is beyond is tantalizing. You can’t quite make it out; and because the imagination is always moving forward, you yourself are constantly stretching. Stories are the way spirit is exercised.
We are told that in translation there is no such thing as equivalence. Many times the translator reaches a fork in the translating road where they must make a choice in the interpretation of a word. And each time they make one of these choices, they are taken further from the truth. But what we aren’t told is that this isn’t a shortcoming of translation; it’s a shortcoming of language itself. As soon as we try to put reality into words, we limit it. Words are not reality, they are the cause of reality, and thus reality is always more. Writers aren’t alchemists who transmute words into the aurous essence of the human experience. No, they are glassmakers. They create a work of art that enables us to see inside to help us understand. And if they are really good, we can see our own reflections staring back at us.
It seems to me that the objects don’t know their material, the gestures don’t know their feelings, and the words don’t know the mouth that speaks them. But to be certain of our own existence, we need the objects, the gestures, and the words. After all, the more words we are allowed to take, the freer we become. If our mouth is banned, then we attempt to assert ourselves through gestures, even objects. They are more difficult to interpret, and take time before they arouse suspicion.
Valhalla Rising is a complex and violent film, full of beautiful, savage images and scant dialogue. What actually happens onscreen?
Nicolas Winding Refn‘s brutal tour-de-force Valhalla Rising stars Mads Mikkelsen as a mute killing machine owned by a Norse Chieftain. The Chieftain keeps him caged, barely seeing to his physical needs and trotting him out to fight to the death for money. He’s an impressive warrior, driven by a massive interior rage. Nameless, voiceless, and one-eyed, he sees visions, which help him to rebel and murder the Chieftain and his band, claiming his own freedom. A young boy (Maarten Stevenson) who fed him while he was a prisoner follows him, seeing that this strong man is the only hope he has for survival in a wild world in which he no longer has a home. This unlikely duo quickly meets up with a band of Christian converts who are embarking for the Holy Land to fight in the Crusades. Thanks to a twist of fate and a mysterious mist, they end up in the New World instead, where the morale and the newfound faith of the Christians shatter in the face of indigenous hostility and internal doubt and betrayal, while the fighter, dubbed One-Eye, undergoes a profound transformation.
This film has a great deal to say about the ambiguity of belief and the difficulty of conversion and change. It’s a bleak piece, but honest and not without a measure of hope. The main difficulty is in cracking the code and finding a way into Refn’s nonverbal language. This post is designed to delve into that language and is filled with spoilers, so I recommend watching the film first. It takes some time to digest. I’ll also admit that the ambiguity in the script leaves room for different interpretations. I would love to hear what you see.
In Norse legend, the head god Odin, also known as Wotan, forfeited one of his eyes to gain the ability to see the future. He also possessed wanderers, pouring his essence into their bodies and guiding them with his ability to see visions. We learn that One-Eye is a drifter who never remains in one place for more than five years. Odin was also a god of warlike frenzy, the kind of madness that grips One-Eye when he is faced with an opponent. As the Chieftain says, “He is driven by hate. It’s how he survives and it’s why he never loses.” For now.
The irony is that having foresight does not convey the ability to change fate, only the opportunity to take advantage of it and prepare for it. As the film progresses, we are privy to One-Eye’s visions. The screen becomes suffused in red and he seems to look out at another image of himself, curiously not a mirror image, as the absent eye stares directly at its reflection rather than being faced by a good eye. We are then treated to short clips of the next pivotal moment in One-Eye’s future, such as the finding of a lost spearhead in a pool of water– a spearhead which he will later use to escape– or his own death at the hands of native people armed with clubs.
If One-Eye is a vehicle for Odin, how do we interpret the interactions he has with other characters and the roles they represent in this grim allegory?
We have the Norsemen: violent people, afraid of the rumors of Christians coming to kill them and take their land. But it isn’t the Christians that destroy these warlords, it is the violence that they have capitalized on for many long years, symbolized by One-Eye, the surrogate of Odin. Odin has not chosen to favor the money-grubbing, cruel Norse elite, but a middle-aged slave who kills to survive, an underdog.
The next group One-Eye falls in with are the Christians. Their leader invites One-Eye to travel with them, as they could really use a killer like him to destroy infidels so that they may proclaim Christianity victorious. In return, they offer the killer salvation and forgiveness, not realizing he is an embodiment of a god they seek to destroy. These men are on their way to the Holy Land, searching for fortune and glory, which they don’t recognize as profoundly unholy things. At their core they are no different from the Norse, clinging to violence as a means of asserting control. While they may have been converted in name, they remain loveless and bloodthirsty. When the boat becomes mired in a windless mist, they revert to superstition and believe the boy traveling with One-Eye must be bringing a curse on them. As they fall on the boy in an attempt to kill him, One-Eye unleashes his lethal force to assert his dominance and save his young friend’s life.
As the mist clears, the travelers find they have sailed up the mouth of a river and are nowhere near the Holy Land. Some of the group believe they are in Hell, and that they have been taken there by One-Eye. Perhaps Odin was looking for new territory? The group’s tenuous grip on reality begins to disintegrate, perhaps infected by Odin’s madness, fear at their isolation, or by something in the mud of the riverbed. The Christians turn on one another in terrible ways, and, after constructing a cairn, One-Eye sets off with the boy on his heels. Cairns are a way of marking where you have been, for yourself and for other travelers. Who is it that Odin/One-Eye expects to follow him? Two of the Christians try to come along, but one has been mortally wounded by his best friend and the other has lost his father and cannot go on without him. Although they do not survive, these men seem to find peace, perhaps because they are hanging on to their human relationships and their compassion. All the same, death is neither easy nor beautiful.
As One-Eye and the boy reach the seashore, hoping somehow to go back home, they encounter a group of natives. These fellows have already been featured in One-Eye’s final vision, the vision of his own death. Are they enemies, or are they followers, new converts to an undetermined religion? It seems that Odin is about to use One-Eye to transform himself into the archetype of the dying god, or, perhaps, One-Eye’s hatred has finally run out. In a most Christlike and uncharacteristic fashion, One-Eye looks lovingly at the boy, reaches out to touch him, then turns and walks meekly to the native people, who raise their clubs and beat him to death. We have one last vision of One-Eye/Odin, free of his body, his spirit overseeing the scene of his own sacrifice, his journey to the New World complete. The boy looks out at the sea, knowing he can never go home, his fate uncertain.
The relationship between One-Eye and the boy drives the film. They have some sort of understanding, perhaps even a telepathic connection, as the boy is able to speak for One-Eye, who is completely mute. They are fellow travelers and sufferers and they care about each other. It is this caring that transforms gods and mortals alike into something more worthy and admirable.
Valhalla Rising makes the case that these Pagans and Christians alike are cruel men, born in a cruel time, trying to exert their cultural dominance over one another. The Christians are stand-ins for the Crusaders, who, when they could no longer sustain a “Holy War” in Palestine, turned to the Americas and brought their honed taste for torture and death with them, still doing horrors in the name of God. No creed will save humanity. The only hope is that we may be transformed and redeemed by love and compassion.
I am reminded of a verse from the Bible, I John 4:8, which states that “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” The people that know God are not always the people you would expect. They are the people that, in the end, choose love, not violence, even if that means their own death.
Soon it will be evening and the clear night sky will be dusted thickly with Summer stars. I shall be here, as always, smoking by the water. I have decided to leave Clea’s last letter un-answered. I no longer wish to coerce anyone, to make promises, to think of life in terms of compacts, resolutions, covenants. It will be up to Clea to interpret my silence according to her own needs and desires, to come to me if she has need or not, as the case may be. Does not everything depend on our interpretation of the silence around us?
Listening is a rare happening among human beings. You cannot listen to the word another is speaking if you are preoccupied with your appearance or impressing the other, or if you are trying to decide what you are going to say when the other stops talking, or if you are debating about whether the word being spoken is true or relevant or agreeable. Such matters may have their place, but only after listening to the word as the word is being uttered. Listening, in other words, is a primitive act of love, in which a person gives self to another’s word, making self accessible and vulnerable to that word.
―William Stringfellow, Count It All Joy
Sometimes journeys and experiences bring our roots into focus. How do we use that vision to improve our lives?
We had our third Open Mic here at synkroniciti on February 22. It was a wonderful afternoon of sharing and learning from one another. New faces mingled with familiar ones and bonds were forged and strengthened. Things took a metaphysical spin and we all left seeing things a bit differently.
I began by reading At the Temple of Sinawava on the Virgin River, a poem that related an experience I had almost ten years ago, when I visited Zion National Park and was struck by the eerie beauty and otherworldliness of the area leading to the Zion Narrows, where the river flows from a crack in the rock big enough to admit travelers. One day I will return there to make that hike upstream. It was wonderful to be able to take eight friends, including my husband, who was there the first time, to the place in my mind that corresponds to this place and time when the very rocks were alive. You can go there too, just click here.
Tuba Sozudogru followed, first with Collection of Memories, a marvelous leather bag put together from materials and objects collected in her journeys between America and her beloved homeland of Turkey. These materials came together over time to make an astonishing whole, including tassels, metal studs, young crocodile heads and feet, and a set of beautiful Turkish talismans against the evil eye. Tuba can carry what she needs today in this vessel made from memories and shreds of her past life, warding off future evil while acknowledging what she has come through and what each piece means to her. There is such power in using mementos and objects that speak of the past and of other places, of the monsters we have conquered and the loveliness we have cobbled together from life’s whirling dance.
She also shared a beautiful portrait of her daughter, who seems as if she will laugh and come right out of the painting. This is Portrait of Love, a celebration of the people that come into our lives to make us better. You can see the care and love Tuba has for her beautiful child, and the colors around the young woman are part of the aura that this mother can see around and associate with her daughter. As a person that sees colors swirling about people all the time, I really enjoyed that aspect of the work. The soft shoulders of the figure seem to reinforce our conviction that she has just turned around to see us and is still in motion.
Kelly Ledsinger read a very touching and personal prose poem, Offshore, that chronicles the journey her husband makes to the offshore drilling platforms where he works. It was stirring to walk with her and her husband and to explore the feelings men and women have felt for millennia when they are separated by the sea. In even more universal terms, life requires that parents divide their time between making a living for their children and being present with those children, that explorers and innovators must leave those who lovingly tend their hearths in order to do what they must do. Separation has never been an easy thing. Please read the poem here.
Later in the evening, Kelly shared a bracelet she made earlier this year. She stamped the hot metal with the image of a nautilus, a seafaring cephalopod that uses its sense of smell to guide it through deep waters to its mate. This is a lovely partner image to her poem. Many times we artists tell one story over and over again, plumbing its depths for new nuances and richness.
The spiral shell of the nautilus also connects well with the next work of art, Orion Lowy’s Real Unreal Real Graph, a computer aided meditation on infinity and repetition. If you were within one of these spirals, you might think you were traveling in a new way, but in reality you are just repeating a pattern that plays itself out across the page.
Grade A is a short story that Jane Lowy wrote as a child and reworked from memory years later. It’s a riveting journey that doesn’t let you know for certain where you are, buffeted by heat and by cold in an atmosphere that seems to echo the womb, ending with a moo. It shows Jane’s early gift for spinning a yarn and ending up in an unexpected and whimsical place. What a precocious child to put such abstraction into words!
I brought out two paintings to finish the evening, Expectation and Out of the Deep Waters. You can read earlier posts about these works here and here. To my great astonishment, Tuba, who had been using her excellent gifts for reading artistic work all evening, led me to new knowledge about these two pieces. They both feature a central figure that represents the Self… in fact myself. The one I painted first, Out of the Deep Waters, shows a being with withered arms, surrounded by a tumultuous ocean and sky full of symbols. Among those symbols is a paintbrush, which is partially bound and guided by a blue rope connected to the waters below. Expectation shows a large eye, open and clear, surrounded by a system of rays or, as Tuba interpreted, roots.
The interesting thing is that I painted Out of the Deep Waters in November, right before making some much needed changes in my diet. Expectation came along in February, after my health had improved vastly. These paintings reflect that change. Also, Tuba’s revelation came at a time when I was feeling that I hadn’t come as far as I wanted to. It was a huge encouragement to me to look at these signposts along my journey and realize how far I had come.
Another thing I take away from these pictures, revealed by that partially bound paintbrush, is that my subconscious is sometimes restraining my creative work, perhaps because it is afraid of being completely revealed. More on this in a later post.
During the course of the evening we discovered that we all either had sensitivity bordering on extra sensory perception, enabling us to see things unseen by those around us, or were close to someone who did. We were a room full of live wires and insulators. By sharing our peculiar and individual visions, we found new possibilities and new ways of thinking. Synchronicity and empathy were operating full forces as we explored how we, individually and collectively, deal with our sensitivity and our uniqueness. We were all so happy to be ourselves.
And, of course, Lisa Sasabuki the cat enjoyed seeing her people. I’ll never forget her running out to meet our guests when I told her Orion was there.
Thanks to everyone who came, and thanks to Ofelia Adame for her lovely photos of the event.
There is much in life that, though attractive and sometimes even beneficial, contains danger. Is there any reward without risk?
I have a new painting for you. Seductive Fruit is another spontaneous work. It began in a very different vein, an abstract piece that became representational as I played with shading and texture. It was also painted weeks ago and was the inspiration for the theme of fruit for synkronicitithis week.
At the center was an object that I identified from the beginning as “God’s eye”. Part of it still remains, the blue field traversed by red and inhabited by yellow, encircled by black, with a yellow-orange eyeshadow and another stripe of black. The picture rotated and new colors enclosed this eye, reframing it. You’ll notice that the yellow and red outer shell which protects the eye is partially see through, revealing the sunrise, or perhaps sunset, sky, made by layering purples, pinks, reds and yellows. Is this moment a beginning or an ending? There is a light source beyond the lower left corner of the painting.
Here I reached my first stopping point, and the first varnishing. It didn’t yet feel right and the varnishing smeared the colors a bit, so the next element to emerge was the foliage, textured from a mixture of brown, green, yellow, blue and red. The foliage seems also to frame the eye, which became the center, or pit, of a fruit for me. Everything that tries to frame this pit has difficulty doing so, as if it is too otherworldly to fit properly into perspective. All potential, knowledge, imagination, illumination and darkness are rolled into that fruit. It isn’t humanly possible to arrive at an understanding that makes all of these parts fit together.
I stopped again, but felt uncomfortable with the emptiness of the right side of the picture. I put a large blob of black paint on my brush and out came a triangular shape that instantly suggested the viperous head of a poisonous snake. In texturing him, the snake gained large, almost frog like eyes, a spine and head features. I gave him a grey area for his home, which also helped me mix the colors to shade him. Then I realized that the black stripe on the outside of the original yellow orange eye shadow was his tail. Anyone picking this fruit is going to be pulling a snake by the tail and running the risk of being bitten. To me this signifies that knowledge is perilous. The more we become aware of the world around us, the less innocent we become and the more darkness we see and experience. In order to live with awareness, we must accept that we will die. Notice that even the snake is not without aspects of illumination–symbolized in this picture by the color yellow, which lightly patterns his head and tongue.
There are overtones in this piece of the temptation of Adam and Eve from the Christian Bible– a serpent and a fruit that contains God’s knowledge of good and evil, his “eye”, if you will. I have always taken issue with the willingness of the Biblical narrator to place words in God’s mouth that imply punishment. It seems to me that he behaves like a child interpreting a correction as mistreatment. What if the God of this story is simply revealing the truth that understanding the world doesn’t make it easier, that it brings frustration and pain, not from wrath or punishment, but from cause and effect? Choosing freedom and knowledge will result in conflict.
There is an old English text called Adam Lay Ybounden which praises God for the time that the apple was eaten, for the temptation itself, interpreting it as a blessed fault. It seems appropriate in this context. You can read the lyrics and learn about the text here.
Have ideas or insight? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Video via UCD-University College Dublin, featuring a performance of Deo Gracias (Adam Lay Ybounden) by Benjamin Britten from his Ceremony of Carols.