Writer Susan Sontag places the photograph in the past, its viewing always about the past. Holding a photograph, we know when the photograph was taken -before now- and that the subject in the photograph is past in time, the representations in the photograph moved on, quite different now from what we observe of them in the image.
I was going through boxes of old prints. Taking up a photograph and looking at it immediately transported me to another time. Some were family photos. I was surprised seeing my sister as she looked 40 years ago, as such a young woman. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen her in the way ever before. At the time I took the photograph of this young woman, I was also young. That’s how I knew her. But now from my advanced years, familiar with the sister I now know, the photograph has the effect of looking at someone I don’t know, well never saw in the way I am seeing her , an old man looking at a youth. So in looking at the photo, being transported back in time, my sister appears to me a young person I look on as an old man. I wonder about her, what thoughts she had of life, what she’s feeling, what dreams she has in her heart. I know in my mind the encounters and experiences that shaped her life and woman she became. But through the photo I see her not only as the woman she is, but the young woman she was. Through the representation of the past captured in the photo, my regard for her expands and deepens. I have another view of her.
It’s why I don’t recognize her I guess, am surprised at seeing her youth, feeling her someone I don’t know. Well I recognize her but am not familiar with the person I see for I never saw her youth back then the way I now see her youth. My imagination is filled with a different perspective; I have a lifetime of experience; Ihave hindsight; I see her in another way. I am looking into the past because I am the age I am now, and she is the age she was. That perspective is unlike the perspective I had when I was back then living with her.
Not only is my imagination filled with a new perspective in seeing her but also now in seeing myself, a new perspective of myself brought from out of the past to now. While I am seeing my sister anew, I also see myself anew, that is, to wonder who I am over that time as I realize I too was young and someone else than I am now, my perspective on the world at that time seen now from this vantage point, to wonder what I was thinking about myself and about life, about the choices I had made between the perspective then and the perspective now. What was I thinking? How could I have not known? How could I have been so mindless?
I wonder what I was thinking, what my sister was thinking back then, all the life ahead unknown to us, what was ahead back then in our minds more innocently held than now. What became of those people in the past, so different now, a young person unknown to us now, lost to us in the weariness of our bodies’ day to day living, age grown all over us, clinging to us in our weak knees and thin grey hairs? How did we get on the track we did, come to the place we are? Was there but one life for us? If something was different at the time of the photograph, an alternate chance meeting with someone else that would have opened a door, a change in circumstance giving us resources to foster some dream, or a commitment realized better by us, a recognition not pursued pursued.
As Ms Sontag suggests, the photograph is about the past from the moment just past to as far back in time as the photo takes us. What does it mean for us to see the past, our own past, in a photograph, or some other past never experienced by us? What becomes of us in the viewing? Does it change us? The questions posed in the viewing of a photograph can move us, stir up our thoughts and imagination. So while we view the past in the photo, the viewing itself is about now, the past becomes us, is present to us, not as the past but as this moment now.
Anne took out from the library a large photo book of the work of Francois Halard, a photographer of interiors, this book a more personal selection of his work. At first blush I might say I found the work stunning, but I don’t think that’s the best word. It suggests too much sensation or some kind of property of glamour. For me the experience of the photographs is more some kind of immediacy, some kind of recognition of something hidden that I do not know about myself. In other words, the photos reveal some possibility in self, veiled from me, some dimension of my own self yet undisclosed. These are photographs of interiors of houses! I don’t know a thing about any of the houses or rooms other than what I see. What moves me is the compositional juxtaposition of shapes, the magical balance of the objects light with the objects’ identification, the perspective of the chosen lens, the scale captured by the type of camera used, the angle of view taken, the wash of light and shadow, the tones of colour and its absence drawn out of the paper.
The photographs do not tell me about any past I know. I have no knowledge of the subject, no back story to contextualize the interiors as to their styles, their designers, their owners. The photographs appeal to me as they are: particular shapes and density of colour and light in the context of a place, a living space. The subject of the photograph is relevant to the effect only in that I have a deep love for houses and homes, certain ones. For their dimensions and construction. My deepest dreams which seem to tour my inner psyche are dreams of a house space where I wander through basements and corridors and back staircases and endless rooms and at times step through a door that opens to an outside balcony or terrace.
So it would seem these photographs are not about the past. Or are they? Don’t seem to be, as much as dreams are not about the past. These photographs are very much living in me in the present moment. The actual subject of any particular interior means little to me. The image though means a lot to me as it awakens something within me that I have yet to grasp. Viewing the photographs of these interiors of the past time, I am awakened to something in myself right now.
I have always had a hard time speaking of photographs as art, fine art as many photographers like to claim for their work, except in this case. I would call these fine art but I doubt Francois Halard would claim that himself. I think photographs are about the past, about a bit of beauty or history, surprise or shock that strikes me as time before, makes me think perhaps or feel something, long for something, be upset for something, learn something and so bring the past into the now, but not as art for me, not in that way. But surprise of all surprises, these photographs of Halard’s interiors seen in the book touch me as any great art would, as an awakening.
Looking at these photographs takes me to a place in my psyche and explores it from many different views, the different images that all speak to one thing. I know not what that one thing is, however. That is the conundrum of art, to move me to a place I don’t recognize as my own and tell me it is my own. Unsettles me as it stirs me, suggests something more than what I know, bowls over my certainty. There is something in the recessed shadow of my own humanity, something of that inner self I am that I have never before known. Just there behind the photograph. It is not some trait, I would think. It is some force of character, some pureness, uncontaminated reflection of my being, some truth we might say, that is beneath the corruption of life experience and circumstance, beyond the contingencies and compensations we construct and access to manage life events and ego. Something else and the same.
In my own work, I have come to regard the idea of soul not as something in me, my soul, but rather imagine me living in soul, the soul of the world. Discovery of self is a discovery of the world, what it has to teach me about my own being that is, ‘being of the world.’ Paradoxically, as the great sages teach, the deeper we go into our Self, the more we sense ourselves a part of, and connected to, all things.
It’s fascinating that photographs for the first time have become for me as a painting or sculpture or story. As Anne has taught me, a photograph is a surface, a copy even, where a painting is paint, is something of its own that I experience. Halard’s book of photographs for me has crossed the line of being a smooth copy, has become a thing of its own, the book too, in my hands, a thing of its own, not simply a surface without substrate.
As I set out with this blog piece I planned to write a paragraph about photos as the past. I was going to then write about theatre as the present, performance being the only art form that is immediate. And then I thought to write about liturgy as future time.
I have to think about all this, about what the images of Halard have undermined that simple reading of time. Is begin to see, there is a time I had not considered: the time of now. A time distinct from the time of the present. In a way it is the only existing time as my experience with Halard’s photos suggests. All time is now. I only am how I am in the moment. How does the past – its memory – exist in me and what meaning for me does it have?
Does the memory awaken me or tie me in knots, or hold me down or lift me up. So much of our attention to the past is to its healing. We see great holes in the past, disruptions of the ideal, distortions of how it, the past, should have been. We live through our therapies and rationalizations to patch the holes, cover them over so as to feel better now, a work of repair for what was broken, a broken past.
The spiritual journey sees the past differently, sees the wounding of the past as something to live through not patch over. The wounding is what makes us, shapes us and leads us to our sense of discovery, helps us perceive life as mystery, not as ideal, not as aquisition. How is that different way of seeing a different experience of life now. It is not a different past. It is how we see the past and how it shapes us now, again, is about now. The difference between fixing the holes and living through the wounds, is a the difference that comes with living in the past and living in the now.
Not only the past, but the present can teach us a out now. To live in the now through the present is to shift the idea of present to presence, to make of the present a presence, of being present. Hence the present, like the past, is a time distinct from now. As with how we view the past, how we view the present can shape for us a life now.
The present is able to reveal itself to us only when we eliminate other time, the past and the future, from our consciousness. That is done effectively in the black box of theatre and motion picture, in the absorbed reading of a good story, in the emotional exclusion of all else in a dramatic turning of life such as the death of a loved one or a life-changing loss. In these times the present can become now, a living with ourself intensely in the now as the present happens. The present is not an experience of now; living now is an appropriation of the present; it is an intentional focus on the present experience of life, an awareness of our experience, of the taste of food, of the smell of the air, of a recognition in another person of some gesture of life, seeing in another their humanity. The presence of being present, can be stolen by some tangled obsession with our past, of some regret or resentment out of the past, or stolen by the future, by wanting what we don’t have more than enjoying what we do have, by worrying about how the future will turn out, by wanting more, by fantastical longings for wealth and success and admiration by others, the future or the past stealing the present from us, the possibility of making the present a meaningful experience for us, now.
Theatre has always been the means I’ve understood and processed my life experience, has been the one frame through which I get to see my psyche, my soul world, learn who I am, and discover what life is for me. Theatre makes me who I am and saves me.
Theatre is about the space between actors created in the immediacy of the moment. Actors have to learn to find and express their character through concrete and precise moments heralded with each word, not generalize some emotion or speech. Only then does the moment on stage appear real. And the audience in attending has an invitation into that moment of meeting on the stage. And the successive moments of meeting in the play of playacting, or costume light and set and of script creates a Now, an experience of the present to the exclusion of all else where by means of that exclusion one becomes more of oneself, can find one’s own self, be present with one’s own self, know one as truly the Self one is. Theatre can be a truth, true in as much for the actors as the true for the audience, if good theatre. If available and one is in the present fully, present to the moment before one, receptive, then is the time of now, of being alive now, is awakened in one.
There is one time left, time of the future. That time I see as future time. I came to that in my core exploration of my life where it led me to see that liturgy is not theatre.
I began my theatre exploration from the culture I was born into, that of the Anglican rectory. And while I followed the path before me, I learned about time, liturgy is not theatre. My life became this exploration of liturgy, eventually through my counselling studies to ask how liturgy could be a healing experience. What I thought was cut and dried became a wandering across an unfamiliar, uncharted landscape. A three year study leave became, in part for poverty of resources, a ten year experiential adventure living in hand to mouth in a rooming house without heat. I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world. My muse led me to insight and blessing that is an abundance of life for me. My muse taught me, a slow learner, and is still teaching me to make time now, make something of time now.
Along the way of sensing the experience of a life lived well, I moved from liturgy to theatre, for myself. In the transition, when I still felt my work was work for the institutional church, I was exploring how the world of theatre could inform the world of liturgy. A turning point for my work came when I found theatre as a language to understand liturgy and to weigh its efficacy. The Avant Gard theatre of the late 19th century to the 1970s was my way in. It’s focus was on reimagining actor and audience engagement, making a theatre that was healing…the very concerns I wished to explore more that the liturgy given in church seemed to have lost sight of.
The reading became experience through serendipitous events I couldn’t have begun to imagine where I found my work lying on the Orangerie floor at the culmination piece of our work of some weeks training with Pantheatre and The Roy Hart Centre in the south of France. I lay there as the sun was setting. Ton, the last of us on the floor to be carrying out the end of the piece, climbed a step ladder at the back of the room, opened a narrow window and climbed out. He was the only voice left, travelling as he had through what emerged as the cosmic heavens, his voice as he wandered off, more and more faintly heard: respectez-moi. A vendre. Respectez-moi. And there lying on the floor looking up through the skylight at the warm rays of a setting sun, as birds flew off to rook, with the fragrance of Anise brought in on the breezes of the Cevenne hills, did I find my work, know what my work was at last.
Yes, in my opinion, liturgists today could well pay attention to and learn from the sensitivities of a theatre performer, but not performer as I’ve heard the clergy decry as clergy don’t know of what they speak. Clergy would do better to understand, would be helped to know how a theatre performer makes real what is not real. Clergy in their lack of sensitivity to their liturgical work make what is real into a fiction, a bombast, the worst idea of performance. I say it rather bluntly for I have said it gently and compellingly in conversation with a number of bishops over many years, but they had no idea, all along assuming they knew so much better even as their churches were emptying all around them.
However, there is another sense to liturgy, really its true essence, that does not belong to theatre which I have seen only once really, in a catholic church in Dublin. There you go! Of all the liturgies I’ve witnessed, but one. And I went back a second Sunday and again, it was there. A good work. What I experienced was liturgy as future time, its true calling.
I realized I was trying to make theatre of liturgy, make it about the present, in some present connection with the congregation, some exchange of being together in this very moment of life. In a way, what I was trying to make of it is what the protestant reformation did to change religious practice. The protestants whitewashed the walls of the churches covering all the religious art and imagery, not because they were boors, but because they wanted nothing to distract the congregant from hearing the word of God, focusing on the reading and preaching of scripture. hearing the word of God was to be life for people where the imagery was a distraction in its seeming idolatry. Ritual, language and ceremony itself became a declaration and assertion, and yes, often in the church politics, a diatribe against any holding a different view of things. That church service in Dublin showed me what liturgy is, and from this insight I came to understand the work and place of liturgy, and how far away the practice of liturgy had gone from its true form, a form of time future.
And I came to appreciate in that moment that my call was not to liturgy but to theatre. My focus in my church work was to preaching, to being particular with the moment of exposition and extrapolation; I was drawn to the pulpit, to the Lenten series talks, to the Occasional prayers and such. The other side, the liturgical, is the work that is repeated in a form, indifferent to the process of communication, of connecting with an audience, embarkingwiththe gathered congregation into the theatre of the mind, the imagination, on an exploration of spirit, inner discovery of self as present experience. Liturgy is a duty, an order, a frame of reference, a bulwark, a culturally embedded expression of corporate being, social bonds, marker for cultural values, and when presented beautifully, is inspiration, uplifting. Liturgy is about now, but as an experience of life now through time future, through faith, not as in theatre, through time present.
The difference between liturgy and theatre is the repeatability, in theatre to a new audience each night, and in liturgy to the same audience year after year. Liturgy I feel is about the future, not the present, is a representation of salvation time, is about anticipation and hope and safeguarding oneself for the future, be that future the next minute, death at the end of life and all between. It’s an act that we commit to, that is a practice that becomes us, and so we become in the Now a person of a certain order, prepared to receive the future, for it is about future time. It is in the mystics’ and monks’ language, a discipline, a rule of life, an order, a shaping of the instrument that will embrace what is to come. It is about wholeness and beauty as a means for healing, not of the past but the future, for bringing wholeness and beauty, the objective of healing, to what is to come.
The words of contemporary writer Thomas Moore go to the heart of this for me: ‘we are what inspires us, not what we intend or make ourselves to be.’
I wish to explain myself more having heard the questions of a friend as we talked about these notions of time. I should like to explain use of the language. In effect, I would say, there is only one time, and that is the time of now. We are really only what we experience in a sense of our existing. However, I would suggest, we appropriate that sense of our existing now through time, through the past, the future and yes, the present as separate from Now. So when we look at a photograph we are, yes, having that experience now, but that experience now is through the past, the memory of a time conjured by the photograph. When in the theatre, or the pages of a novel, or a counselling chamber, or a crisis, we are living a now in ourselves but through the very moment we are in, through the space we sense being in, the present – all that is happening in the space between actor and actor in the characters of the play at the very time of its happening, for example. We join the actors there when it is good theatre. We are in the now of our own sense of existence but through the experience of the present.
Liturgy is a future time. This needs more explanation. By liturgy, I really wish to refer to any crossing of liminal space, not simply ceremony or religious activity. Hemingway sharpened twenty pencils every time before he sat down to write. It was a way, a commitment day in and day out, sharpening the pencils, like a liturgy, to take him across a liminal space into his writing. Yoga, meditation, deep breathing, being a fan of a sports team are ways people use, activities they commit to, activities that transport them across the liminal into the future. However, it’s a future experienced in the now, if we can get our heads around that language. We are in the experience of now but with anticipation, with intent to arrive in a place, with the repetition that builds resilience and constructs order and dimension to life. These crossings in various forms, that liturgy is but one simulation, are about healing, which is seen otherwise as possibility of what is good and whole. For Hemingway it was into the place where he could write, where was his wholeness of being, a healing, a separation from the storm, a refuge, anticipated as the future to follow the sharpening, but to exist also as he sharpened the pencils, the future in that very act of sharpening, that is, the anticipation realized in the anticipating act. It is the bowing of the head in reverence to be oneself in reverence as one bows the head.
My own life journey brought me from the culture of church that I was born into and was indemnified with, the boat I was put in, and over the years in the rowing of the boat, through the wise intervention of my muse, I found more of who I am along the way.I gave myself over, not a credit to me but compelled of me with poverty and parental abandonment, that took me to a deep place I can only feel blessed for. I never joined the church or left it. It was a life I was imbued with, third generation clergy, and I worked through what I was given, and it still remains the only world I really know. But behind all that was my own self, and like so many, I grew up in a family that cared not for my own self, loved me, I’m sure, but had no thought for me or my life or my future. Let me to my own by age 14. My father trained me at 8 years for public speaking, the one thing he did, but never for anything did he say I did well. He couldn’t. It wasn’t in him. No matter what I did, it was never enough to be told I did well. At fourteen he took me aside and told me he wasn’t going to pay for me any longer. I was on my own. I could live in the house but I was to buy my own toothpaste, and anything else I needed, and I was to pay him room and board. That is something I have lived with all my life, a deep fear I couldn’t meet my financial obligations; like many others, I spent my life searching for the blessing that should have been my father’s. My journey through life, at the inspiration of a Celtic guardian angel walking step by step by my side, my journey through life took me back home, to the self I recognized as my own self, to the theatre. Not as a career or a profession. It wasn’t what came of it all. It was my study, my language, my teacher, my healer.
It was a wonderful journey, nothing I could have imagined for myself. I travelled in my quest from a study of making the transcendent present (the sanctuary) to making the present transcendent (the stage).
And now a new adventure suggested in the turning of the pages in a book of photographs of interiors by Francois Halard looms before me, upsets all the assuredness of my having arrived at any explanation for how life can be read. It is still, even in the last years of my life, a new beginning. Past present future. Life now.
The muse has always surprised me, delighted me with what I could never have expected, always has come up with a new twist, a new orientation to turn everything else inside out and upside down. You know nothing says my muse each time I think I’ve arrived at some safe harbour. I am looking at Halard’s book realizing in its viewing of the light and line and form and composition of the images that something else I do not know of myself exists. All my certainty that photographs were photographs and not fine art, all of it up in the air, nothing resolved, the now ever changing. As wise teachers point to, we, our own self is not a noun but a verb, not fixed but changing.
I can only imagine my muse rollicking about in laughter with each prick knocking me for a loop, contradicting all that I hold dear, egging me on with a prod to disrupt any assuredness I have in my own command of what is this thing I live. Once more I tip over the edge and fall into the abyss, leave certainty behind, and at the bottom, like Gloucester in King Lear, be in one piece having just imagined the fall, all the while only lying on my stomach. And there just beyond my hearing, the laughing, uncontrollable laughing of my muse, but lovingly so. The muse takes delight not in knocking me about but in seeing my joy and gratitude for having been knocked about, in my imagination, in my embracing of life, to discover what the world would teach me, this endless flight into the mist. Knocked about turn after turn thinking I’ve figured it out and finding out I know nothing really, having my serious examination of my life be just another puff of smoke in a long line of smoke puffs, all of it being just an ever shifting mirage of what is. And hence my joy with life, my delight with the mess of what is. For it is all now, those moments I find myself in the awe of things, lying prostrate before life itself, sensing in me the connection of all things: and so the ever-fluctuating time, the reorientation in time, past future present is just the one time, the moment now when I am one with all things, in the realization that we are all of the one thing, belong all of us to each other and each to whole of nature. The ‘What is’ of life is something else I can’t begin to imagine, wisps on the periphery of my vision calling me toward a beauty, a love, as the rays of sun, as the wind swept rain, as the branch of the tree or the rough bark of its trunk have so much to say to me if I would but listen and attend.
Life exists just here before me, especially now as I hear the rain against the window; that’s all it is: a warm drink on a cold day; life not before, not to come, not present but now, in an ever shifting effervescence, that comes to me in the mirage of past and present and future, for there is no time at all, no past, no present, no future – just ‘what is’ and what is shown me of myself, the sound of the rain to soothe me, my very own being imbued of the soul of all things, finding my own self in the soul of all things just now, myself there found in the soul of life itself.