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Truth as hard and tough as nails

22 Mar


I am surrounded by public art. Just across the street, on a hill in Jackson Park are seven half-sunken Buddha heads in a circle–Indria Freitas Johnson’s, “10,000 Ripples.” The heads, which were put in place on World Peace Day, September 21, 2016, symbolize peace; “We need to be reminded that peace is possible,” the artist says.

A half mile to the south, behind the Museum of Science and Industry, adjacent to the Wooded Isle with its lovely Japanese Garden of the Phoenix , Yoko Ono’s “Skylanding” was recently installed. Giant lotus petals rise out of the green turf, turning our eyes upward in welcoming gesture. The installation ceremony, which included dancers and special music, is pictured above.

Yoko Ono is a respected, if controversial, avant-garde artist and musician. When she married John Lennon, the couple became strong activists against the Vietnam War. “Skylanding” takes its meaning from her early life in Japan. She lived in Tokyo, her life disrupted by the firebombing and atomic bombs of World War II. In those days, the sky was a fearsome place–bombs rained down death, suffering, and destruction. Her family fled the city and scratched out an existence in the countryside. “Skylanding” welcomes the sky, its lotus leaves reaching upwards. The scene is one of peace, dancing, and song.

All very nice, we say, but what do these sculptures really amount to? Life is hard, not soft and beautiful. Hard here on the south side of Chicago, with its guns and gangs, as well as the unflinching dollars-and-sense calculation of urban developers. The artists seem to be engaging in out-of-touch soft power, while life around us operates on hard power.

This is where Ute Lemper enters. She is one of the great cabaret singers and composers of our time, a matchless interpreter of Kurt Weill’s songs and the Brecht/Weill classic Threepenny Opera. Fans of the movie, “Cabaret,” recall that the classic era of cabarets and their singing was early twentieth century Germany, and that they waged cutting satire of their society and its politics. Imagine a much more sardonic version of “Saturday Night Live.” Hitler shut them down–fascists don’t tolerate satire.

Lemper entitles one of her songs, “Munchhausen”–named after a sixteenth century German baron, who was notorious for his habit of lying. Its refrain:

I’m sick and tired of lies from you
But how I wish your lies were true
Liar, liar, liar, liar, liar, liar
Truth is as hard and tough as nails
That’s why we need fairy tales
I’m all through with logical conclusions
Why should I deny myself illusions

Hard power can banish soft power to the sidelines, even into obscurity. But soft power cannot be eradicated. It lives on–in the form of stories, fairy tales, songs, hopes, myths, and dreams. In a brilliant turn of phrase, our truth is tough as nails and fairy tales house their toughness.

Political figures, barons of business, dictators–these pass away, but dreams, hopes, and fairy tales live on and on. We remember the words of the prophet Isaiah, who lived at the time of the Babylonian oppression of Israel–“they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” But who recalls the names of the oppressor Babylonian kings?

It has been said that the fairy tales and dreams are the opiate of the masses, intended to sedate their senses. I prefer to think of them as the sigh, deep in our hearts, that lives below the surface of events. Fairy tales are not only tough as nails, they are subversive of the existing order. They undercut human pretensions.

Lemper includes fairy tales in her song:

I saw a film the other day
That really varied from the norm
There were no soldiers on parade
And no one marched in uniform
Its heroes were not supermen
And no one even shot a gun
The audience still loved the film
Though not a single war was won
But I was really shocked to see
This film was made in Germany

I saw a land that hated war
And melted all its weapons down
To build a boat of love for kids
Who planned to sail from town to town
Declaring peace for all the world
Let killing now come to an end
Embrace your enemies instead
Your former foe is now your friend
Ev’ry conflict now will cease
And all of us will live in peace

These kinds of fairy tales are subversive–little wonder that Hitler closed them down.

Yoko Ono’s “Skylanding” expresses such a subversive dream. Our skies are not so friendly today–bombers and drones in the Middle East, lung-eating pollution around the world, amid moves to increase military forces. It is a dreamy fairy tale, but it advances a truth that is hard and tough as nails. If it were a policy proposal, it could be scrapped; as proposed legislation, it could be tabled. As hope and dream, as fairy tale, it will live on as long as human beings exist on this planet.

(c) Phil Hefner 3/22/2017

Something more than politics

7 Mar

Something “more” than politics–

Patricia’s poem

after I have set the table
folded the scottowel into napkins cooked
this delicious eggplant stuffed with bulghur wheat
then baked the whole thing under careful
covering of mozzarella cheese
said my grace

don’t you bring Anita Bryant/Richard
Pryor/the Justices of the Supreme Court/don’t
you bring any of those people in here
to spoil my digestive processes
and ruin
my dinner

You hear?”

June Jordan wrote this poem in the late 1970s. If you substitute different names for Anita Bryant (singer and anti-Gay/lesbian spokeswoman) and Richard Pryor, it expresses what I have felt many times in the last six months. Miroslav Volf wrote, “Politics touches everything, but politics isn’t everything, not by a long shot.”

There is something more than politics–what is this “more”?

The more–family, faith, religion, personal integrity, the recovery of loved ones from cancer, art, cookouts in the backyard, the Cubs, the Packers–we all can names places in our lives that are “more” than politics–even though they may well be touched by politics.

In these comments, I’m focusing on art. When his novel, Underground Railroad, received the National Book Award, Colson Whitehead responded, with his eye on the current political situation, “Be Kind to everyone, make art, and fight the power.”

Why should we make art? The poet, Joy Harjo, gave an answer to this question when she bestowed the National Book Award for poetry: “Poetry carries the spirit of the people and is necessary at the doorways of transition and transformation.”

The words of George Steiner have stuck in my mind: Journalists insist the present moment has the most urgent claim on us–it is the hub of our universe; for artists, to the contrary, it is the longer view that counts, and the deeper view.

The politics of the day is mean and cheap. June Jordan’s Patricia has worked carefully and lovingly to prepare the meal for her guests–and she wants to contrast sharply with “mean and cheap.” Her mozzarella and eggplant transcends politics, and she means for her guests to share that transcendence–at the same time, the poem opens up other possibilities for transcending politics.

Consider Pablo Picasso’s painting, “Guernica” (see above). Rooted in a current event, it probes deeply to portray the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica by the Nazi German Air Force in April 1937. Picasso cries out that bombing was the rending of creation. And not just bombing that town, but also Srebinica in 1995 and Aleppo from 2012 until the present and Palmyra in 2016–all war, in other words. The list of “Guernicas” is endless.

Even the best journalistic treatment cannot convey the depth and breadth of Picasso’s painting. Wilfred Owen did the same in his poems from World War I. In “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (“it is sweet and right to die for your country”–in other words, it is a wonderful and great honor to fight and die for your country), written in 1917, he foreshadows the bombing of Guernica in his description of a soldier dying of a mustard gas attack:

“If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.”

Dripping with irony and sarcasm, Owen calls irrevocably into question the “old lie.” The journalist’s task is to report the soldier’s suffering and death in vivid terms, as TV news brought the Vietnam casualties to our dinner tables in the ’60s and ’70s. The artist’s message is a different one: war is a violation of the created order, and smoothing it over as noble sacrifice is a lie. This is not a condemnation of the soldiers who fight and die, but of the societies and their leaders who send soldiers into war.

It’s not a matter of escaping politics, but nourishing the deep places of our lives. I have tried to cultivate these deep places in my own life. I visit friends in our second-floor rehab unit. I read newspapers, but watch little TV news. I bought a small volume of Christian Wiman’s poems, “Once in the West,” and found these wonderful lines:

“Too many elegies elevating sadness
to a kind of sad religion:

one wants in the end just once to befriend
one’s own loneliness,

to make of the ache of inwardness–

music maybe. . .”

Make the decision now to befriend the deep places of your life and make them into music. Share your music with us.

(c) Phil Hefner. March 7, 2017

Your life is a poem–1

1 Feb

The poem in my previous blog was entitled, “The art of dying.” But the basic idea is that our lives are the works of art. Our lives are poetry written in our living day by day. We are the poets.

Our dying is part of the poem–an especially important segment, the end of a stanza, you might say. Our poem goes on after our death, but we are the poets who craft the epic as long as there is breath in us.

I think of this quite a lot since we moved into a retirement community, where everyone, in one way or another, is moving toward death in a relatively short time. Death is a more frequent experience than in other demographic communities. This is not a pessimistic or morose observation–it’s simply factual.
You might say that here we have a concentration of poets working on the final stanzas of their life-poems. Since this idea occurred to me, I have a different perspective on my fellow residents. I tried to express this in my poem:

Waiting in a large room,
And though we’re not alone

We practice our art–
Inwardly and outwardly, both.

We see each other, but
Mostly miss the signs that

Each is creating
An art of dying,

Never knowing when
The project will be complete.

The first response I received was: “I hope you haven’t had bad news that has placed you in the position of focussing on the art of dying.” I thought to myself, “Yes and No.” I consider the poem to be reflective, not morose or depressed. Two other readers, one who is close to my age and the other a former student, thirty years younger, both said they find themselves in the poem.

In response to the first reader, I wrote that I wasn’t prompted by bad news. There is a lot of my philosophy of life embedded in the poem. I have been influenced by Soeren Kierkegaard’s teaching that we “live towards our death”–that in an important way our lives are defined by our death and what we consider worthy to die for–as was the case with Jesus. Kierkegaard was reflecting on how we live our lives–in the awareness that our dying is connected to the way we live.

As I was working on the poem, I was reminded of the anthropologists’ opinion that the ability to reflect on life and death–being aware that we will pass away–is a mark of the human species. Anthropologists sift through pre-historical remains for signs of burial practices, for example.

I’ve also been influenced by Erik Erikson’s discussion of Gandhi and the Hindu understanding of the life cycle. The four stages in this cycle are: growing up, the householder phase, the achiever phase, and the growing old/dying phase. The final stage challenges us to prepare ourselves for finishing our lives in an appropriate way. The final years should be an appropriate capstone.

A major point in my poem is that medical science (“the voice in a white coat”) complicates the final stage, because our lives are extended, often in unexpected ways that render our “art of dying” more complex, but also contribute to the distinctiveness and beauty of our lives:

Like a great cathedral

Altered, added to
In every age,

The beauty of our art lies
Not in what we once conceived

But in the unmistakable
Add-ons time lays upon us.

I think of the great Chartres Cathedral. The current cathedral was begun in 1194, and it had to take into account the remnants of four earlier churches that had been built on the site, only to be destroyed by fire and other calamities. Consecrated in 1260, a major addition was built seventy-five yeas later at the east end. In 1506, lightning destroyed the north steeple, only to be replaced by a flamboyant structure totally different from the steeple to the south. The magnificent choir, with its frieze depiction of the life of Mary, was completed in the early 1700s. Yet the whole of the cathedral, six hundred years in the making, is a thing of beauty and inspiration. Our lives are like that.

There is a tradition of reflecting on the art of dying. The ancient Romans, particularly the Stoic philosophers, discussed the theme. Death was a motivation for leading an honorable life, since they believed that our reputation is all that survives–immortality is in what others remember of us after we are gone. Stoics considered suicide to be an option in cases where life is no longer useful.

The Christian tradition of the art of dying goes back at least to the early 1400s. “The Art of Dying” is the title of two writings “which offer advice on the protocols and procedures of a good death, explaining how to “die well” according to Christian precepts of the late Middle Ages. They were written within the historical context of the macabre horrors of the Black Death 60 years earlier and consequent social upheavals of the 15th century. Very popular, they were translated into most West European languages and were the first in a western literary tradition of guides to death and dying.”

In contrast to the Stoic emphasis, the Christian tradition reassures us that God’s grace accepts us, whatever our condition, whether useful or not, and urges dying people to intensify their faith in Christ.

This blog installment will be extended into a Part II. As ever, your reactions are eagerly awaited.

(c) Phil Hefner 1/31/2017


Jacob wrestles in the shopping center

24 Aug

Sometimes deep contrasts–even direct opposites–show themselves at the same time, in the same place. Take the Hyde Park Shopping Center as an example. It’s a delightful urban oasis–for me especially because the Bon Jour French cafe graces its central courtyard. I’ve spent many pleasant hours there.

Children laugh and play as they run and skip around the court yard fountain. Watchful mothers chat over coffee under the shade trees. At the tables are those who read their daily paper. Earnest students read and write for their projects, while still others are writing letters or engrossed in a novel. Jazz musicians come in the summer, filling the courtyard with their music. Annual crafts fairs and garden shows dot the calendar, as well. Most, like me, simply enjoy the ambience on a summer day, the coffee and the bakery’s output of tasty goods.

But if those of us who enjoy the delights of this space look carefully at our surroundings, we see a small sculpted figure perched above the fountain in the center of the courtyard (see photo above). Entitled “Jacob and the Angel,” it refers to the story found in the Bible, Genesis 32:22-31. In this story, Jacob wrestles through the night with a strange man. Although the man refuses to reveal his name, Jacob believes he has been wrestling with God. This encounter changed Jacob–he received a new name and a permanent limp.

The sculpted figure of Jacob is caught up in intense struggle. All his weight is balanced on a single toe; his other foot seems to be cloven, like a hoofed animal. The sculptor, Paul Granlund (1925-2003), suggests that the struggle is also interior–Jacob is wrestling with himself. Granlund himself observed, “I’m always trying to say two things at once.”

I would like to know how Jacob ever got to the Hyde Park Shopping Center. Curious, too, that the sculptor–son of a Lutheran pastor who spent his entire career in Minnesota, much of it at Gustavus Adolphus college in St. Peter–should place his Jacob in a self-styled secular setting.

His presence at the French cafe does stand in a venerable tradition. As early as the 1700s, the coffee houses of Vienna and London were places of both light hearted joy and serious thinking by artists, philosophers, and musicians. Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore–the two legendary cafes on the Left Bank in Paris– became famous for their glittering array of deep-thinking patrons over the decades, including Picasso, Simone de Beauvoir, Ernest Hemingway, Julia Child, and James Baldwin. You might say that it’s the rule, not the exception for cafes to be venues of seriousness, along with their pastries and coffee.

Popular philosophy might think that we build pleasant places as safe spaces where we can be free from wrestling with angels, ourselves included. In reality, the wrestling takes place anywhere, perhaps especially in the pleasant spaces, when our antagonist is least expected.

You might call this a serious everyday spirituality. Are the denizens of the cafe so self-aware?

(c). Phil Hefner. August 23, 2016

For more on the sculptor, see:

Walking on water with Christo

8 Jul

Christo’s art is “wrapping” things–buildings, coast lines, monuments, and more. In 1969, he wrapped the two-story Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and its lower-level gallery. My wife and I and our three daughters (ages 8, 6, 2) accepted the invitation to lie on the floor wrapped in canvas and roll around on it. We connected with this work of art. We’ve followed him ever since. You can see this at:

On June 18, almost fifty years later, people walked on Christo’s monumental installation on Iseo Lake, 60 miles from Milan, Italy. Some 200,000 floating cubes create a runway nearly two miles long, connecting the village of Sulzano to the small island of Monte Isola on the lake, for a 16-day outdoor installation–entitled “Floating Piers.” See the photo above.

For me, the brilliance of the Christo and Jeanne-Claude (the art is a collaboration until her death in 2009) is the way they bring earthiness and transcendence together. What’s earthier than rolling around on a canvas covered floor? You feel the floor. You “see” the work of art with your whole body. The artists deny any deeper meaning to their work. They simply create for joy and beauty and offer new ways of seeing. But at the Museum, it wasn’t just a floor–it was a work of art. Artists invited us to roll on their creation! Ever after, I realized that a museum is not just a place where we view art; the museum can itself be a work of art. The total experience transcends the act of viewing a canvas-covered floor, but the transcendence requires the rolling, the participation. And the 2 year-old participated as much as 40 year-old adults.

Art critic David Bourdon says that Christo’s wrappings are “revelation through concealment.” We have to discover what things really are–first encounters are not enough. Scientists know this very well. Meticulous, time-consuming experiments and observations pry open natural phenomena. Poets and novelists say the same thing: that they have to twist and squeeze words to discover their possibilities. Ursula Le Guin speaks of words as stones that the poet must chip away at in order to crack open their meaning.

When was the last time that you examined a building by physically rolling on its basement floor? Christo talks about the people walking on his floating piers–they will experience the actual surface of the lake, walking on the cubes as they float with the movements of the water. They are discovering the water.

Just as the canvas reveals the museum floor, though it appears to cover it up, the floating piers do not cover the water so much as reveal the water in ways quite different than it is revealed in swimming or by walking over it on a pier or a bridge.

Christo speaks of the art as a journey. “The journey is the work of art. And the most beautiful part of the floating pier is to see that the entire project is about the people walking nowhere. About the feeling of the surface of the land or the water. And your feet actually–many people walk barefoot. And they walk, they walk. It’s not like going to shop, not going to see your friends. It’s going really nowhere.”

In that nowhere the revelation takes place. Religion often works in this same way. When you get right down to it, there is no “nowhere” for Christo. Artistic experience can be everywhere–even on basement floors. Religions know as well that there is no fundamental “nowhere.” Martin Luther, who stands tall in my tradition, taught that God is both hidden (“absconditus” in Latin, the absconded God) and revealed. But God only seems to be “hidden”–God is actually present everywhere, but in ways we do not see at first–we must discover the presence of God.

Discovery is tactile, hands-on. We are familiar with the mental aspects of experiencing the world, the “thinking.” Art is material–pigments put on a canvas, metal shaped in a forge, meaning and beauty painstakingly pried from words. Religion is the same. Deeds, interactions with other people, our own inner emotional life, goodness and evil, faithfulness and betrayal, the lust for power, self-sacrifice and selfishness–these are the concrete materials of everyday life, and also the stuff of religion.

The stuff of the world–whether it’s color, bronze, or emotions–does not bend easily to our dreams. There’s a give-and-take required. Christo and Jeanne-Claude engage the world of buildings and bridges, as well as rivers, coastlines, lakes and canyons. Those who come to the art are part of the give-and take–they’re rolling on floors and walking on water.

If you’re very lucky, you can check out a Christo near you–sometime. In the meantime, travel by Google:

Christo and Jeanne Claude: Prints and Objects. Edited by Joerg Schellmann. New York: The Outlook Press.

(c) Phil Hefner. 7/8/2016