It comes up over and over again. Handing yourself over to the not-knowing and to full immersion in attention to the present, trusting your instinct will find the deep knowledge you need in any instant.
I’m told Declan Donnellan has written of this in actors. In Shakespeare’s time in fact the actor did not know. The actor had a gift, given by god, and was the channel for divine inspiration. Now that the actor must stand on his own two feet, without the flow of the divine through his performance, he tends to concentrate too hard, feel it’s all down to perspiration with a soupcon of genius (or vice versa depending on the ego quotient I suppose). But good acting is not about concentrating too hard, its about paying attention and then letting things happen.
My friend Chris Heimann once ran a workshop for our little network. First he asked us all to imagine a thing on a shelf in our houses, then take the imaginary objects of the shelf, examine and caress it, then describe it to others. We all had beautiful vases, mirrors, picture, photos, nothing out of place in Designer’s Guild. Then he asked us to imagine a dusty old cupboard under the stairs in the cellar, a shelf, hidden behind an old frayed velvet curtain which had on it objects we knew nothing of, left by the previous owner. We had to, in the dark, put our hand through the curtain, fumble on the shelf for an unknown object and try, unseen, to work out what it was. These objects were slimy, mouldy, spongy things which revolted us. They were what was there when we took the borders of control off our imaginations. Those are the things we need to be willing to find if we are to express the whole of our messy experience, not just the tidy stuff that can go on show for visitors.
My singing teacher, Howard Millner, says pretty much the same in a different way. For him its the wave, the wave of the life force that can knock you off your feet. We don’t sing, we are sung through. All we need to do is learn how to get out of the way, make an empty space through which the force flows. This is where our attention needs to be directed. To making and loving the uncertainty of a narratively whole empty space which allows expression of who we really are to take shape beyond our control.
In The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathon Haidt uses the metaphor of a rider on an elephant:
‘Modern theories about rational choice and information processing don’t adequately explain weakness of the will. The older metaphors about contolling animals work beautifully. The image that I came up with for msuyelf, as I marveled at my weakness, was that I was a rider on the back of an elephant. I’m holding the reins in my hand, and by pulling one way or another I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elpehant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him.’
The mahoot is not the man in charge. The elephant is the elephant in charge, or most likely charging.
And somehow from elephants to Matisse. This from an article in the Guardian on 12th May about the unknowing and anxiety with which he approached his back sculptures:
“Henriette III was completed in 1929 at a point when it seemed to Matisse that his painting had reached a dead end. He made the last and most uncompromising of the Backs the same year, manipulating a vast mass of wet clay alone all through a sweltering Paris summer, knowing, or at any rate suspecting, that nobody but himself would ever see the finished work. It was as if he needed to touch base before veering blindly in a new direction without knowing where he was heading, or what he might find if he got there. Back IV was the last work he completed before setting sail for Tahiti on a voyage of discovery that would eventually lead to the great cut-and-painted paper compositions of his last decade. “I learned the meaning of the horizontal and the vertical from the shoreline and the coco palms,” he said afterwards.
Matisse’s sculptures seem now so sure of themselves, so full of energy and poise, so taut, even sleek in their confidence and clarity, that it is not easy to re-see them as they first presented themselves to their creator, groping his way forward by his own account in a fog of anxiety, rising often to panic.’
Veering blindly in a new direction without knowing where he was going. Just as we do on our elephants. Just as Chris got us to do as we fumbled behind the curtain in the cupboard under the stairs to find we knew not what. Which could take me back to where I started with Anne Carson’s ‘from the sleep side’.