When the Almond Tree Blossoms:Reading, Enchantment, and Enterprise


[For Presentation at Dvanyaloka, Mysore, July 2003]

            “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Albert Einstein

                     “I am a wanderer and a mountain climber…I do not like the plains and it seems I cannot sit still for long…” Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

 “Don’t listen to me. I don’t know what I am talking about. I am a poet” Kazantzakis, Report to Greco

The significance of this Seminar on Books in my life cannot be overstressed. In the announcement that was sent out to the participants Prof CDN has made a lengthy argument in this regard.  He stresses the way in which books mean what they mean to us, the way we respond to books, the way we devour meaning, the way we absorb the sense, and adapt or adopt them in our life and living, understand, misunderstand or misappropriate knowledge. I was most struck by these words:  “… the motivation is not to add another book but education of the self, a discipline of the mind and the soul, in other words, cultivation of true sensibility.”

The key words here are “education of the self”, “discipline of the mind and soul” and “ cultivation of true sensibility.”  Over the last fifty years or so European and American academics and intellectuals have theorized and counter-theorized about the production of meaning and the act of reading.  And right from the times of the Buddha concepts like the “mind” and “self” and “soul” have occupied the forefront of philosophical debates and their very conceptual veracity challenged. However, even in this twenty first century one cannot categorically dismiss the role of books in enlarging one’s vision—interior or otherwise. Questions like “true sensibility” might come to be challenged, but, that the reading of books do play a significant role in building up one’s insights and outlooks is as yet not a mere matter of belief.  It is a matter for serious concern for all of us for whom books indeed matter a great deal and consciously or unconsciously at many stages in our lives books have changed the course of our living, thinking and seeing.

Yes. Books do matter.  In fact they matter more than we can ever imagine. I recall that the everyman editions of classics used to have a common blurb which went like this: even if the entire world were to be destroyed and only a box of everyman books were to float about, any alien who would chance upon those would know that there existed a great human civilization at one time on earth! Tall claims these, especially now that we are endowed with the hindsight of postcolonial reading strategies and Foucauldian theories of power and politics that instigate and enable us to see through the thinly disguised façade of the vainglory of western culture and civilization that these words conceal. However, what I would like to see also in them is a claim to the significance of books.

When I was leaving for this seminar, a young colleague of mine asked me what it was all about, and exclaimed: “but, Sir, isn’t it all so old fashioned?” Yes, I replied.  It is old fashioned. The act of reading itself is old fashioned. Let alone the art of reading. Any one who loves reading would vouch for the tremendous sense of fulfillment and pleasure that reading would afford. The feel of the book the smell of the book, the crackle of the pages as we turn them one by one and live perhaps through centuries and beyond. The feeling of the true the vast the beautiful—satyam, ritam, brihat—as we stand amidst the rows and rows of books in a library.  The beatitude of discovering a book that you never thought existed. The exultation of reexamining a book you had read with so much involvement years ago. The pleasures of reading are untold.  And as with everything else, it remains for one to explore for oneself: no amount of retelling can induce the same feeling.  One should know it for oneself. After all, in the final analysis one can experience only one’s self.  The art of reading is not a mere exercise in linguistic entertainment but one of “soul-making.” If it so happens that we have misplaced our souls in the last century it is time we invented our human soul.  Especially after the gruesome happenings that mark off our century: Afganistan, Pakistan, the September 11th, Gujarat and Iraq.

To talk about books in one’s life might at the outset appear to be a simple task: but it is deceptive.  Should I choose to dwell at length on those great works of the master story teller, Dostoevsky—the amazing Brothers Karamazov or that heart rending Crime and Punishment, or those by Thomas Mann or Frantz Kafka, or any of those by that man from my part of the world—OV Vijayan, whose Kazakkinte Ithihaasam—The Legends of Khazak—has left so deep and profound a wound in my insides ever since I read it what now appears ages ago? The list of books that have changed one’s life at many points could be pretty long indeed. Thus the choice becomes a lot difficult. And yet with due restraint I have chosen to remark on a worka of significance—keeping in mind the tempo of the seminar—an epic poem of multiple dimension and extraordinary significance.. I do not claim that my reading of this work is exhaustive and complete.  What I have attempted is to recover some of those notes I had jotted down while I read the work and piece them together to form a narrative of coherence and meaning in the present.  I read these works at different periods of time in different frames of mind and hence responded to them differently.  However, now that I am recovering that act of reading, in the course of my recovery my present interpolates into my past and vice versa.  Above all, my attempt would be to relive the pleasures of reading.  Here in too would lie the relevance of the title of my paper.

The two books I choose to dwell on are so widely spaced apart: both in terms of their genres as well as in the content, argument, and spirit.  Nikos Kazantzakis wrote in Greek and is quite renowned for his classic narratives, while Leonard Shlain is neither a novelist nor a philosopher and is comparatively less known. In what follows I read Kazantzakis’s Odyssey: A Modern Sequel and Leonard Shlain’s  Art and Physics. Parallel Visions in Space, Time and Light

In 1938, at the age of fifty five, Nikos Kazantzakis published his Odyssey: A Modern Sequel. This was in a sense the culmination of his life-vision. For, in the traditionally ambivalent character of the Greek national hero, Ulysses, he found a sufficiently complex archetype to depict his own anomalous personality and temperament.

Nikos Kazantzakis’ present reputation rests mainly on his great works of fiction—Zorba the Greek, The Greek Passion, Freedom or Death, The Last Temptation of Christ and The Fratricides.   His poetic plays Odysseus, Theseus, Christ, Buddha, and Prometheus are lesser known and seldom read or performed. However, the singular titles of these works would serve to project the heroic mould in which he attempts to cast his poetic vision.  It is the inherent synthesis that vibrates behind the apparent contraries and antitheses that Kazantzakis consistently sought for: the greatest hero or the Nietzschean Superman, for him was the Authntic Being, in kind of Heideggerian sense His Report to Greco is a sort of spiritual autobiography.

As Kimon Friar, his translator writes in the introductory note to the Odyssey:

His own life and personality would seem to be a battleground

of contradiction unless one looked upon them with the third

inner eye, and from a higher peak, as on an unceasing battle

for a harmony never resolved.

This glance between the eye of the orient and the eye of the Hellenic Greece, Kazantzakis called the Cretan Glance. He was born in the island of Crete, at the cross roads between Asia, Africa, and Europe.  Throughout his life he was attempting to find a synthesis, not a philosophical one, but in terms of a personal vision—between the twin streams of what Nietzsche has termed the Dionysian and the Apollonian. It would be simplistic to reduce his conflicts to the mere tension between the religious and the artistic impulses, very much prevalent in the 19th century, but the creator of the ebullient Zorba, full of zest and zeal, felt deep the passions of Christ as too real in flesh and blood, and never came to resolve these two aspects, because in the final analysis one experiences only one’s self. Reading Kazantzakis is an odyssey of the soul. He writes with so much passion and flame in the language of the spirit. And great souls are always dangerous. There is an occasion in the Report to Greco when his friend turns to Kazantzakis and utters a few lines of poetry.

My friend riveted his blue eyes upon the flowering almond tree and crossed    himself  as though doing obeisance before a holy wonder-working icon. He remained    speechless for a long moment. The speaking slowly he said, “ A poem is rising to my lips, a tiny little poem, a Haiku.”  He looked again at the Almond tree.

I said to the almond tree,

“Sister, speak to me of God.”

And the almond tree blossomed.  (234)

Such is the language of Kazantzakis. It is the language of the gospel. However, each reader feels a deeper kinship with the book as the pages are turned, because it is a intimate and personal gospel—an experiential one.  If at all there is any element of the religious in Kazantzakis works it is a religion of the heart. He writes:

I lived, spoke, and moved in a fairy tale which I myself created at every moment,         carving out paths in it to allow me to pass.  I never saw the same thing twice,     because I gave it a new face each time and made it unrecognizable. Thus the world’s  virginity renewed itself at every moment. (48)

I read Kazantzakis at a very sensitive age when the crucial aspects of language never appeared to create a veil between the world and the self—language was the very passion of the soul and could utter “truth”, like the mantra enchant and enfold the real and recreate the world afresh.

I believe that one of the strong forces that turns a person towards books is the feeling of the passing of time. We cleave through space and cling to time.  Everything around us only betokens the passing, and growing apart. The works of Kazantzakis reverberate with in our own troubled selves in a strange kind of interior harmony, in a primal sense of sympathy.  This is the force that drives us through, a seeping force that never tires nor departs, but only remains constantly on the move like the Kazantzakian hero, Ulysses.

The Buddha left his home to wander forth in quest of self knowledge and Homer’s Odysseus sails back after a life time of adventure and battle.  The journey of the Buddha as both Nietzsche and Kazantzakis see it is the journey of the Superman who renounces all worldly pleasures that stand in the way of enlightnment.  The image of the wandering hero also would symbolize the lost soul in search of home. Haunted by memory, moved by the instinct of homecoming the suffering hero’s way back home is a mystic symbol of the return to the Source. This is a common symbolic function that one encounters repeatedly in the religio-mystical traditions.  But Kazantzakis’s Odysseus is again the world-wanderer, the man-slayer, the home- wrecker. Cast in an entirely original mould and conceived in the Nietzschean spirit, this Odysseus is an existential hero seeking authentic existence, Heideggerian dasein, in the face of danger and pain.  The Geman philosopher and pupil of Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) wrote: “To be free is nothing; to become free is very heaven!” and Odysseus continuously partakes of this ecstasy of freedom. The Odyssey is the most monumental work of Kazantzakis and indeed his greatest achievement. He devotes an entire chapter in his autobiography, Report to Greco, to the making of this epic: “When the Germ of the Odyssey Formed Fruit Within Me”  He worked and reworked on this poem and made seven complex versions of it. – attempting to present a comprehensive weltanschauung a world view transcending the contradiction of flesh and spirit which was his lifelong intellectual preoccupation.  His effort remarkably parallels those of Goethe writing Faust and Sri Aurobindo composing his Savitri.   Kimon Friar, his translator, observes:

Perhaps his ideal image of himself was as a Hebrew prophet

out of the Old Testament, like Isaiah or Ezekiel, who roamed the

countryside from village to village, inflamed with the word of

God, and who combined thus in one entity both the poet and the doer,

but who disdained to distort the inspiration of his electric vision

into the betrayal of treacherous words.

Kazantzakis felt that even words should not stand as barriers to communication. He wanted to transmute his vision directly from spirit into living action without the distortion of any intervening medium. The resemblance to the Faustian ideal cannot be missed. This kind of heroism and profound self examination is the hall mark of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. With the European Existentialists it reached its peak and fell with the rise of new philosophies of language and history.  The individual has now disappeared completely and in its place reality has reinvented the social and the regimental. Who if I cry, writes Rainer Maria Rilke, in his Duino Elegies, would hear me in the dominion of angels?   But how could the thinking mind by pass that perceptive dictum of Socrates: The unexamined life is not worth living.

Friar continues:   Like the painter who turns to collage for a more immediate replica of life,  and in desperation glues or rivets on his canvas sand, iron, fur, flowers, bits  of string  or fragments of newsprint proclaiming the world’s catastrophies  or its trivialities, Kazantzakis longed to glue on the blank pages of his despair  sections from his own flesh, bits of his skin and bone, splinters from his  fingernails,  all ensanguined  and  smeared with his life’s blood.  Like the god who  created him, he longed to transmute the word directly into flesh, that flesh might in time be transubstantiated into something more spiritual, more refined than     either words or flesh.  His was the vain search and dilemma of the true mystic,  and all his works must be considered to be the vain betrayers of his vision.

In his book, The Ulysses Theme, ( Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1954) W B Stanford traces the permutation of Odysseus in literature through almost three thousand years and considers Kazantzakis’s Odyssey and James Joyce’s Ulysses as “the most elaborate portrayals of Odysseus in the whole post Homeric tradition.”  Kazantzakis’s Odyssey, he says, offers as much scope for ethical, theological, and artistic controversy as Joyce’s Ulysses.  Kazantzakis , he continues, has found many new ways of understanding Odysseus in terms of modern thought , and has presented a fully integrated portrait of the Hero.—as wanderer and politician, as destroyer and preserver, as sensualist and ascetic, as soldier and philosopher, as pragmatist and idealist, as legislator and humorist, combining many scattered elements in both ancient and modern traditions until the episodic and spatial enrichment of the myth are augumented on a scale, both physical and imaginative, far beyond any contribution since Homer’s .  Stanford believes that Kazantzakis’s Odysseus is an avatar of Dante’s centrifugal hero. He also finds close resemblance to Tennyson’s Ulysses who aspires

To follow knowledge like a sinking star

Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

And for Odysseus Ithaca had been only an ideal home, to yearn for, to sail towards and once it is reached it becomes no more meaningful. For him the only meaning had been the enriching experiences of the voyage, the journey itself.  At one place he exclaims:  “My soul, your voyages have been your native land!”

A wanderer himself, Kazantzakis could not suffer to see Homer’s Odysseus settling down to a quite life in his old age in Ithaca, his imagination wanted to hurl him into fresh adventures.  Colin Wilson, in his Poetry and Mysticism, has pointed out that Kazantzakis’s forefathers were blood thirsty pirates on water, warrier chieftains on land and the poet has thus inherited many of the harshest characteristics of his ancestors. This extreme coexistence of apparently incompatible nature: infinite compassion and ascetic temperament of the Buddha and the self sacrifice of Christ coupled with the barbaric cruelty and violence of Odysseus, is what makes Kazantzakis’s Odyssey  sui generis.

Kazantzakis’s life work is an exploration of the meaning of human freedom. Throughout his life he was obsessed with this ideal—in fact he lived to experience its farthest limits. His translator points out that the meaning of freedom in all its implications of liberation, redemption, deliverance, and salvation are explored in this epic. He cites the poet’s own words spoken st a newspaper interview:   Odysseus is the man who has freed himself from everything—religions,             philosophies, political systems—one who has cut away all the strings. He  wants to try all the forms of life, freely beyond plans and systems, keeping  the  thought of death before him as a stimulant, not to make every pleasure     more acrid or every ephemeral moment more sharply enjoyable in its brevity, but to whet his appetites in life to make them more capable of  embracing and of exhausting all the things so that , when death finally came, it would find an extremely squandered Odysseus. 

In Book XIV of the Odyssey, where Kazantzakis develops the core of his ascetic philosophy, Odysseus climbs the mountain to commune with God, in an obvious parallel to Moses.  On the first day when he has ascended to a cave in which to sleep for the night, he has symbolically reached a dimension beyond the subhuman and reached the cave of the human where neither ghosts nor demons dare attack him.  On the second day when he wakes up to find the cave filled with primitive drawings of a hunt, and hailing the hunter as his blood brother he bursts into a song praising the joy of life. But here when he dreams of his most ardent and secret wish—immortality—a worm climbs on his chest to remind him of his mortality.   In spite of all his unlimited enthusiasm and yearning for more life, Kazantzakis falters when confronted with death and fails to transcend it.  For him, as for the Existentialists, death remains as a stimulant.  Colin Wilson has termed him as an “evolutionary romantic.” Perhaps it does not appear to bother Kazantzakis that if death is recognized as an absolute and ultimate reality then his evolutionary theory gets reduced to absurdity.  I should recall here that Kazantzakis was a student of Henri Louis Bergson (1859-1941) and so in his conceptual framework the individual is amalgamated into the universal rhythm or élan vital.   In The Saviours of God that he called his spiritual exercises,Kazantzakis sets down his philosophy thus:

Whether we want to or not, we also sail on and

voyage, consciously or unconsciously amid divine

endeavours.  Indeed even our march has eternal

elements, without beginning or end, assisting God

and sharing his perils. …. We discern a crimson

line on this earth, a red blood splattered line which

ascends, struggling from matter to plants, from

plants to animals, from animals to man.  This indestructible

prehuman rhythm is the only visible journey of the

Invisible on this earth.

Therefore in his view the essence of all creation is to seek perfect freedom and ultimate salvation. These are also the basic tenets of Bergson and Nietszche.  God is not the Absolute Pure Being but an agonized struggle towards more and more purity of spirit, a spiritual becoming. And the goal of existence is the struggle itself.   Pervading influence of Spinoza, Spengler, Darwin, Frazer and Dante have been traced in Kazantzakis’s philosophy by many critics, however, it is the pure and clear voice of Nietsche that one hears from every page of the Odyssey.

            I am a wanderer and a mountain climber…

                I do not like the plains and it seems I cannot

                sit still for long. And whatever may yet come to me

                as fate and experience—a wandering and a

                mountain climbing will be in it: in the final analysis

                one experiences only oneself.

Says Nietzsche’s Zarathustra.   True, in the final analysis Kazantzakis remains the strong man who takes joy at the eternal strife that is the law of life , and the Hebrew prophet who leads his people to the promised land on a journey bestrewn with danger and suffering.


The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel

The poem opens with an invocation to the sun as the fecund principle and the symbolic goal of a time when the flesh shall be transformed into the spirit.

and the mud winged and heavy soul, freed of its flesh,

shall like a flame serene ascend and fade in the sun. (lines 29-30)


The full spirit of the poem emerges in the Prologue itself

Ho workers, peasants, you ant swarms, caretrs of grain,

I fling red poppies down, may the world burst in flames.

O brain, be flowers that nightingales may come to sing!

Old men , howl all you can to bring your white teeth back

To make your hair grow crow-black, your youthful wits go wild ,

For by our Lady Moon and Lord Sun, I swear,

Old age is but a false dream and Death but fantasy…

Aye, fellow craftsmen, seize your oars, the Captain comes;

And mothers, give your sweet babes suck to stop their wailing!

Ahoy, cast wretched sorrow out, prick up your ears—

I sing the sufferings and torments of renowned Odysseus.

(lines 47-73)

The first book begins abruptly with an “And when in his wide courtyards Odysseus had…”

Kazantzakis has grafted his epic to the 22nd Book of Homer’s Odyssey—after having killed all his wife’s suitors Odysseus allows his identity to be revealed.

If the essential Kazantzakis is an expression of human freedom the next work that I choose to highlight explores the dimensions of freedom in terms of human creativity. It is a unique work in that it explores parallels between the world of modern physics and the world of twentieth century western art.

Anyone who has evinced at least a casual interest in the visual arts, would have necessarily, at the outset, experienced certain amount of discomfiture at encountering the art of the modernist and postmodernist generation.  In comparison with the western Classical and the Renaissance art products the twentieth century’s art output is not easily understood—in other words, their meaning is not freely comprehended without a certain amount of  mental struggle.  Pablo Picasso’s “Maids of Avignon,” or Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” or Jackson Pollock’s numbered Action Paintings, do not appear to please as effortlessly as a painting by Rembrandt Giotto or Leonardo.  Even a most enthusiastic art lover would pause to reconsider before passing judgement on a work by the eccentric genius Andy Warhol or by the abstract expressionist Jasper Jones.  Not to mention the innumerable inexplicable innovations of the post Avant Garde  generation of artists in Europe and America.  Very much like in the realm of music and poetry, the proper appreciation of the visual arts certainly calls for an expert initiation.  And what is often tragically overlooked is that art necessarily calls for the inculcation of a visual culture, something that is qualitatively different from a verbal and auditory one. The reason why these artists created the things as they did and the manner in which they chose to express themselves, similarly runs deep roots in human history and psychology.  To understand and appreciate modernist and postmodernist art per se, one has not only to seek for historical roots but also to engage in a creative dialogue with the evolution of ideas in other allied disciplines too.

Here one might be tempted to say that an apparently innocuous piece of canvas or board stretched on the wall marked with strange hieroglyphic and patterns of colours is not at all that simple as it appears to be , but bears the historical record of the enterprising human psyche.   Painting and sculpture, over and above their commonly held aesthetic magnitude, do something more than please or beautify, but on the other hand demand something from the sahrdaya.  As Leonard Shlain in his book, Art and Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time and Light, (New York: William Morrow, 1991), argues,  the western artist’s concern with space, time and light, in a mystical manner, anticipate and to a certain extent, explicate and valorize the intellectual advance of modern physicists. The parallels are what his exciting book sets out to demarcate and explain. And he does so with justifiable élan.

It is now more than a decade since Shlain’s book was issued [ Note: This essay was authored for the Seminar in 2003]. And yet the astute manner in which he has traced the connections between these two divergent spheres of human activity, remains fascinating reading.  As it is generally held, artists are concerned with interpreting the visible real, through their medium, and the physicists, on the other hand, are involved in explaining and charting the working of the world of reality.  By virtue of their inherent preoccupations, art and science have been held to oppose each other; one is held to be a purely subjective enterprise, while the other purely objective; there doesn’t seem to be a common space.  But in this erudite and penetrating study, running close to five hundred odd pages, worked out in twenty nine chapters—each encasing apparent binary opposites like Illusion/Reality, Sacred/Profane, Rationality/Irrationality, I/We, Dionysus/Apollo, etc, Shlain establishes that art and physics are not opposed to each other but complementary.  He provides numerous illustrations of art’s precognitive power, showing how artists repeatedly conjure up revolutionary images before physicists formulated new configurations of the world.  In order to substantiate his theory, Shlain marks out as his area the turn of the twentieth century when some of the most stunning examples of deeply revolutionary art in western history were made and side by side two thought-changing branches of physics were emerging – relativity and quantum theory.  To quote Shlain:

Our present world full of computers, lasers, space probes, transistors and         nuclear energy attest to the great power of prediction implicit in these        two theories.  Most members of contemporary society still have not         processed the profound implications these two hold for their belief in                commonsense reality.  The new physics presently rests like a pea under     the collective mattress of human kind, disturbing tranquil sleep just        enough                 to begin to change how people think about the world.  Art was there before     to sound the clarion warning of the technostress to come. (p.     425)

In order to create a context in which to discuss individual works of art and how they relate to the theories of physics, Shlain begins with  ancient Greece where many of the premises of the present day thought and value systems is held to have originated. Although many of the ancient insights were discarded by advances in modern science a basic structure can still be discerned: if the ancients attempted to trace all experience to certain primordial element or elements and conceived of a four-fold paradigm, a similar structure persists in the twentieth century paradigm of space-time-energy and matter.  Space and time constitute the grid work within which we construct and conduct our everyday real life, while inside their frame work energy, matter and various other combinations thereof create our world of appearances.  These four elemental constructs form a mandala of totality.  All perceptions created in the dream-room of our minds are built from these four building blocks.  Another mysterious element which is in a way a connecting link is light.  Both fields of relativity and quantum theory rose out of  the two unsolved questions about the nature of light.  Very much in similar lines, Shlain argues, artists over the centuries have been concerned with light, space and time. And it is in the struggle of the modern that this concern comes into the limelight.

Launching into a comparative study of classical physics and pre Renaissance art, Shlain traces the nuances through Platonic and Aristotelian thought and Greek and Roman art , until the discovery of perspective by the Italian artist Giotto ( 1276-1337), the persistence of the Euclidian notions of space and time.  During the rise of the Newtonian system western specifically European art had also been concerned with the concrete objects of the external world.  Perspective distinctly separated the “I” from the “It” and painters very much   in the manner of physicists examined the world from a stationary and privileged standpoint. Towards the end of the nineteenth century artists began to tamper with the hitherto hallowed rules of perspective, the virtually straight horizon line and the vanishing point.  While the elucidation and the formulation of the concept of space as curved was almost fifty years away, Impressionist painters like Eduard Manet and Claude Monet and Paul Cezanne had anticipated the idea in a painterly manner. Cezanne devoted a life time to studying the relationship of space light and matter.  His investigations of loaded space, static light and multiple perspective were to wait until the advent of relativity theories to be appreciated and comprehended. To a chapter entitled “Einstein/Space, Time and Light” Shlain prefixes as epigraph a quote from Albert Einstein: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”   With the inception of the observer dependent theories of physics, the Newtonian world view with its rigid vantage points and privileged positions had to yield to the human imagination. The special and general theories of relativity are so remote from our commonsensical world view that they call for particularly strong visual imagination. After 1905 fundamental beliefs about the nature of reality came to be challenged.  Shlain sets them out like the following:

Space and time are relative, are reciprocal coordinates, and combine to form  the next higher dimension called the space-time continuum.    They are not      constant, absolute and separate.

There is no such thing as a favoured point of view.  For objects of   substance there is no internal frame of reference at absolute rest, and  ether does not exist.

The rules of nineteenth century causality under certain relativistic   circumstances are invalidated.

Colour is not only not an inherent property of matter but depends also  upon the relative speed of the observer.

A universal present moment does not exist.

Observations about reality are observer dependent, which implies a  certain degree of subjectivity.

To believe Leonard Shlain artists anticipated each and every one of these without actually knowing the theoretical importance of their insights. Further as he endeavours to show, it is this prescience on the part of the creative artists that made their work totally opaque to their contemporaries.   We with our present day knowledge and the advantage that hindsight offers us are now enabled to see the patterns of the future emerging as a jigsaw puzzle in the various misadventures of the modern artists.

With the development of quantum mechanics classical physics had died a natural death and contemporary theoretical physics has oriented our thinking in different directions. Instead of questing after primal building blocks physicist pursue  the underlying entity, the field. If artists before 1920-s anticipated a great deal of what the general theory of relativity would effect in human thought and history the American painter Jackson Pollock in the sixties reiterated a profound truth that the later physicists discovered: that the field is more important than the particle, ie.the process superceded the object.

As Emile Zola observed art is nature seen through a temperament, and the nature of space time and light is revealed for those  who want to see it through the creations of innovative temperaments of the great artists. This is Shlain’s professed objective in his work and he engages the reader through enlightening arguments and ample illustrations. The works of modernist artists like Cezanne, Picasso, Dali, Chagall, Magritte, de Kooning and Calder are examined in depth in the light of the history of ideas and modern physics.

Throughout the work, Shlain takes special care not to take a partisan view of things: the artist doesn’t seek the corroboration of the scientist at any point. Neither does the scientist.  He fully agrees with Werner Heisenberg who said: Both science and art form in the course of the centuries a human language by which we can speak about the more remote parts of reality and  the coherent sets of concepts as well as the different styles of art are different words or groups of words in this language. (quoted   p. 363)

If the works of the modern artists appear to be baffling and weird, equally, if not more, baffling and weird, would appear the language of the physicists who trace the birth and death of stars, white dwarfs, quasars, black holes, event horizons and singularities.  The biologist JBS Haldane once remarked, “the universe is not only queerer than we imagine, but it is queerer than we can imagine. “

Towards the close of his book, Shlain draws together  the insights of various  minds like that of John Wheeler, the physicist, P.D Ouspensky the Russian mathematician, Tielhard de Chardin, the Catholic theologian and postulates the possibility of a universal mind as another unity in the matrix of the spacetime continuum.  This is a natural culmination of the readings of            parallels in art and physics, where each dovetails into the other perfectly.Shlain looks upon the sensitive artist’s mind as the space wherein the zeitgeist reveals itself.  If the artist’s intuitions are the first intimations of movement in the larger entity of universal mind , artists themselves can be seen to serve the unique function of seers through whom  the zeitgeist appears .  Visionary artists able to discern the what the rest of us still cannot embrace and announce through their art the principles emanating from this spiritus mundi.  It does not matter if the critics and even the artists themselves are unaware of their singular purpose.  If the artist’s work is truly the apparition of the zeitgeist it can become evident only in retrospect as society matures and its members achieve the same vantage point visionary artists occupied decades earlier. (p. 387)

In concluding his prodigious intra-disciplinary study Leonard Shlain remarks that the gulf that divides the right hemisphere of the brain from the left in western culture is very wide, while what is called for is a paradigm shift which could integrate both functions. Leonardo da vinci the renaissance  man is the one notable example of the total integration of creativity’s dual aspects.   According to him Leonardo emerges as the unique blending of seeing and thinking and the profusion of images and insights that emerged from that cross fertilization is cornucopian.

Shlain’s arguments linking painting and physical science make interesting reading for the depth of his analysis and the wealth and range of his material. Perhaps, even in spite of the insights he brings to bear upon his subject the connections might not serve to add anything new to the knowledge of the casual reader. However, Art and Physics would hasten in a paradigm shift in the order of perception. Art and science over the years have diverged so much, and more emphasis has been heaped on their singular ways rather than their unified visions.  The consciousness of the modern was created in the minds of the creative artists who pioneered a new world view; perhaps they did not formulate the same in the language of science; the scientists who hastened the birth of a new age in science spoke a different language and seldom cared to seek corroborations in the a-rational world of the artist. The difference lay in the language. Art spoke in metaphors and metonymies; physicists spoke in mathematical symbols.  Michael Phillipson in another groundbreaking work of equal significance speaks about this divergence in unity in this way:

(the) transformation of the artist’s relation to nature and tradition, which Cezanne’s work inaugurates, is a defining feature of modernity itself, and finds its parallel in modern science in the transformation of the observer’s relation to the observed in post Einsteinian physics.  A necessary feature of this relativising of the relation is the way it begins to require and display an alternative sense of language , for if reality is      not some absolute pregiven external to human being, is not a ‘transcendental signified’ but rather obtains its sense from the ways in which human beings methodically make sense of it from within specific contexts and languages, then the relation of language to its other (nature) can no longer be that of correspondence but rather of  constitution. (p.50)

It was not much farther now for the radical ideas in western intellectual history like deconstruction and poststructuralism to emerge and challenge human perception and the order of things. After all the artists have laid the foundations and broke new wood.

By Way of Concluding:

When one attempts to recall the pleasures of reading one is on this side of nostalgia, especially when one tries to chew the cud of wisdom. What is knowledge? Is it merely information? Where does knowledge cease and wisdom begin? Ancient Indian Sanskrit aestheticians demarcated meaning in many levels: Abhida, Lakshana, Tatparya, Vyanjana—thereby defining progressive levels of meaning as it is unfolded to the initiated. And in terms of completeness of syntactical, lexical and axiological meaning: Para, Pasyanti, Madhyama, and Vaikhari, where Vaikhari is the basic level where the word corresponds to the mere informative and the Pasyanti vak—or the seeing speech—that leads the reader into levels beyond the knowing into empathetic oneness at the Para stage. Any reading can be a misreading as deconstructionists would see it—if it remains at the levels below the madhyama guided only by the tatparya.  But those levels beyond are afforded only to the few who desire to tread beyond into the third bank of the river.

We read some books for mere information; some we read for sheer pleasure.  Some alter our perceptions for a time being while certain books leave a lasting trace in our very being . The Odyssey is one of those works that leave us different; we wake up like Gregor Samsa—transformed utterly.  But only more human than human. Works like these are a discovery. However there are others that one reads with a feeling of surprise like looking upon one’s own mirror image We already seem to know what is being revealed to us and it is only a matter of saying yes in whole hearted agreement: “Of course, I knew that. How I wish I had written this!”  Such is my experience of going through Art and Physics.

Of course, in the final analysis one experiences only one’s self.  There is a Zen koan that goes like this: A finger is necessary to point towards the moon; but once the moon is observed there is little need for the finger.  But I would add: Let us not discredit our finger for there are more moons!


Kazantzakis, Nikos. The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel.  Trans. Kimon Friar. New York:   Simon and Schuster, 1958.

Kazantzakis, Nikos. Report to Greco. Trans P A Bien. New York: Simon and Schuster,1965.

Phillipson, Michael.  Painting, Language and Modernity. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985.

Shlain Leonard, Art and Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time and Light. New York: William Morrow, 1991.   


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