Thursday, July 09, 2009

With Kierkegaard in Cambodia

Kristín Bjarnadóttir: With Kierkegaard in Cambodia
A paper for a literary seminar at the Buddhist Institute in Phnom Penh in June 2009,
for Nou Hach

Presentation of my work in a relation to the major subject of the seminar: aesthetics.

I - The roads of Aesthetics:

The word aesthetics leads me mainly in three directions: the road of beauty, the road of artistic expression and to the Danish thinker Kierkegaard.

The Road of Beauty. How does beauty arise? How do we create inner worlds of beauty in order to cope with hard and often scary facts of life? And what do I mean by beauty?

One of my favorites, the great thinker Simone Weil (1909 -1943), wrote that "Beauty captivates the flesh in order to obtain permission to pass right to the soul." And in her writhing of Necessity she says: “The sea is not less beautiful to our eye because we know that sometimes ships sink in it. On the contrary, it is more beautiful still.” [i] So far I can only agree with her paradoxal definition.

The second road leads me towards to the artistic expression with the discussions of the limits of art and reality … fiction and nonfiction, traditional and nontraditional, and so on. As those limits are a kind of fiction in them self, they lead to the question of how do we construct those limits that seem to be so movable from a time to another and different within different cultures. I think of those limits as a contract you have to renew if you want to make difference with your art or writing.

The third road leads me to aesthetics as a state of mind, (or should I say mindlessness?) as a way of being and using my senses, in the sensible world, rather than the reasonable world. The Danish philosopher and theologian-poet Sören Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855) has been called “a cartographer of the mind” as well as a father of existentialism. He talks about the three different basic stages in our individual process of self-realization. The aesthetic stage is the Don-Juan-stage, living in the now, without taking care of past and future, while the second stage is the more responsible ethical stage and the third and most complete stage is the religious stage reflecting holy moments of choices. Each stage becomes a way of seeing life, a way of being in the world. To belong to the species Homo sapiens does not guarantee that I lead a human existence. It has to be shaped, and Kierkegaard might want to remind us of that we must make ourselves if we want to be ourselves.

So I am at a crossroads.

The fourth road is the way I came here on. How did I shape my way to this very moment? I’ll look back a little.

II - My way into the world through other authors/writers:

Back in 1968 I was in a Danish folk high-school and should be reading Sartre and Albert Camus. I happend to read some texts of Kierkegaard in the library and he became my favorite and his words “my sorrow is my castle” became my motto.[1] I like his way of thinking of self-realization as a ladder leading to the religious stage, not as an institution, but as a more perfect existence[2]; which involve his concept of the moment (øjeblikket). I like his way of writing, often using different persons to express different perspective, like a play for the stage …

He was important for my way into literature. I wrote my first poems that year, and I also found out that acting school should be my next education. Giving live to some playwright’s words by embodying them in public could give me a feeling of satisfaction. I build my castles within other writer’s words, and the theater became my home. As an actor you may use the spoken word on stage to hide the silence of your own non-verbalized emotions by expressing them in an abstract way. For every role you reconstruct your body memory, led by the circumstances in the play on stage.

Writing is a different reality, composing a text that is supposed to continue its live outside the writers body, when another person happens to read it in a livegiving way.

As a writer I make a choice when the silence is within my consciousness. Should I verbalize it or should I let it be? And what literary form could it be born in?

At school - back in the fifties and sixties - we only read traditional poetry, and back home, in the North of Iceland, the modern poetry with more free form it often was not seen as poetry at all, but more like rubbish without respect for the tradition. Sometimes we had our quarrels at the kitchen table; like when I felt in love with the poetry of the Icelandic poet Steinn Steinar and later Nina Björk Árnadóttir and the Finish poet Edith Södergran.

One of the arguments against contemporary or modern poetry is that it is difficult to learn poems when they have no rhyme and no regular way of using alliteration and rhythm. But the music in a written text does not need to be regular; as a reader I find it more important do find a connection with the text. If I can connect with a text, the form can belong to a tradition or not. I very seldom took the poems I learnt at school under my skin. I did not find the connection. Later in my live I was able to find the beauty in some regular forms and also in our grate culture inheritance like the songs of Poetic Edda[ii] .

III - To write the moments of silence:

As a child I did not travel far from home. So writing about travelling might be a logical result of that; it became a returning subject in my text.

In my first book of poetry For Thine is the Landscape (1999), I write about the woman living abroad and longing for home, and how she finds the child at home longing to be away. It is about travelling on the ocean between those two countries, the Isle of childhood and the State of adults, but the main theme is the power of longing.

Later my main subject became dance. I seek dance from different perspective; as a social activity, as wordless dialog, a discipline of knowledge and as an artistic expression. The Argentinean tango has a big role, in my life and in my two latest books. The longing and travelling is still there as an important topic of tango.

And I guess I need to write about dance in order to say what should not be possible to say with words.

The silent way of being in different kind of dancing has always been important to me; to dance sorrows, to dance the joy and any emotion between. Truly I try to jump from one of Kierkegaard's incompatible stages to another; from the aesthetic stage of Don Juan to the religious stage, which is not possible without all of what the ethical stage calls for of moral responsibility, involving discernment and justice. Sometimes Simone Weil is helping me, with her concepts of “attention”.

Attention is one of the qualities you train for in the world of dance. You are responsible and you make a lot of choices. When you dance with a partner like you do in tango, this becomes obvious. In the world of Simone Weile attention is even a religious concept; attention is something that opens the door to the divine.[iii]

I have a feeling that there is a Moment where she as a thinker is taking a similar place as Kierkegaard in that ladder of shaping existence. Both are seeking something religious but outside the institutionalized religions. When he wrote about the “moment” (øjeblikket), as a religious term it involved the moment of choices. The moment is a reflex of the eternity in his world, and eternity is a timeless concept. So to experience that moment, you must have gone quite a way up in the ladder. I will continue to wonder if Kierkegaards Moment and Weils Attention really are comparable although both are terms for (entities) a way of being behind thinking, which I see as a place where poems can become.

Kristín Bjarnadóttir; Iceland/Sweden

[1] “I say of my sorrow what the Englishman says of his house: My sorrow is may castle. fe´s conveniences. “ Sören Kierkegaard´s journals and papers, May 12, 1839, page 62.

[i] The whole citat is like that: “The sea is not less beautiful to our eye because we know that sometimes ships sink in it. On the contrary, it is more beautiful still. If the sea modified the movement of its waves to spare a boat, it would be a being possessing discernment and choice, and not this fluid that is perfectly obedient to all external pressures. It is this perfect obedience that is its beauty.”
[ii] for instance Völuspá and Hávamál. You find translations in English on the web:
“Prayer is made of attention. It is the direction towards God of all the attention that the soul is capable of. The quality of the attention makes for much of the quality of the prayer. It cannot be replaced by the heart's warmth.”
“Only the highest part of the attention comes into contact with God, when the prayer is intense and pure enough for such a contact to occur; but all the attention is directed towards God.”

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