"Je est un autre"
An essay by Caveh on art and spirituality
Io, Un Autro, Italy, 2002
For me, the central question in art is that of the ego. I suppose, for me the central question in life is that of the ego, but for me art and life are one and the same, so I will just talk about art for now.
The medieval view of the artist is one I feel much closer to than the Enlightenment view. In the middle ages, the artist was seen as a humble servant of God, doing God's work to the best of his ability. Starting with the Renaissance, this view gradually started to change. The artist became increasingly self-important as his faith in God increasingly diminished. The cult of personality replaced the ancient mystical cults, and the artist was increasingly seen as more than human.
This cult of personality can be seen in the way we view heroic artist figures such as Michelangelo, Beethoven, and Van Gogh, to name only a few. What we admire in these artists is their individuality, their uniqueness. But I believe that all art is "channeled," i.e. that it comes from God, however one defines that word. But the modern view of art is that it is the self-expression of a sui generis individual, a "genius" who is somehow more brilliant and talented than the rest of us.
The truth is that we are all manifestations of the genius of God. The artist is no different than anyone else except insofar as he is closer to the source of his Being. But today, the artist has acquired the status of a saint, and the culture of celebrity has become our new religion. Only instead of a panoply of saints, known for their virtue and good works, we have movie stars and rock stars as religious icons. These people are worshiped not because of their spirituality or wisdom, but rather because they enable us to project a more grandiose image of ourselves, namely that, like them, we too can be more important and powerful than we actually feel ourselves to be.
This problem of the ego in art stems in part from the fact that our self-worth has been severely eroded. To compensate for this erosion, artists have tended to emphasize their specialness, and to attempt to make themselves appear better than those around them. This is a big problem for the arts because if all art is in fact "channeled," then Art rests on a connection to the Source of all creation. The problem with the ego in art is that it destroys this connection to the source by positing itself as the source, much like the Satan figure in Milton's Paradise Lost.
This temptation is almost inevitable for the artist, as it was for Flaubert's Saint Anthony. But the greatest artists are those who resist this temptation. Rimbaud, who ultimately failed to resist this temptation and so ceased to be an artist before he died, referred to this aspect of art when he compared the artist to an anchorite. So the fundamental question for the artist, as indeed for anyone, is the question of the ego: namely, what to do about the existence of the ego? For the religious person, this question might be posed in the form of: what to do about the existence of the Devil? But I am not a religious person, so I prefer to talk about the ego.
Franz Kafka attempted to answer this question in several ways. One way was to not finish what he started (none of his novels was ever completed). Another way was to not publish what he wrote (most of his writing he never attempted to publish). Finally, he tried to destroy what he had written (he asked, on his death bed, that his friend Max Brod burn all his papers, a request which Max Brod fortunately disobeyed). But none of these strategies was sufficient unto itself, which is why Kafka did finish and publish some stories, and gave Max Brod the impression that he was at least ambivalent about his request to have his papers burned after his death. So what was Kafka doing?
I believe that Kafka was trying to resolve this problem of the ego in art: how does one make art that is not inextricably bound up with ego? And the simple answer is that one can't. Rather, one must engage with the ego in a dialectical and hopefully sly way, because the ego is exceedingly tricky, even if God is still trickier.
Maurice Blanchot, Kafka's spiritual heir and the most insightful commentator on Kafka's spiritual travails, argues that Kafka's strategy was a brilliant one, but that it must be seen holistically to be fully understood. For Blanchot, Kafka's art and life were of a piece and indistinguishable. In this sense, it could be argued that Kafka was the first performance artist, making of his life a work of art, and of his art a kind of exegesis of his life.
Blanchot inherited Kafka's dilemma, and solved the problem for himself in a similar yet radically different way: Blanchot addressed the problem of the ego in art by writing a work, Thomas the Obscure, that would pose a central enigma to the reader. The answer to this enigma would be found not in the work itself, but in Blanchot's life.
Blanchot has never allowed himself to be photographed. The fact that he has never allowed himself to be photographed means that he has no publically recognizable face. The fact that he has no publically recognizable face means that a question is posed by his supremely diffident relationship to publicity, namely: what does Maurice Blanchot look like? This question is echoed in his seminal work, Thomas the Obscure, by a related question: who is Thomas the Obscure?
In 1945, when the Nag Hammadi library was discovered in Egypt, the Gospel of Thomas was among the texts that were rediscovered. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus asks his apostles the question: who am I like? According to the Apocrypha, Thomas was Christ's twin brother, and he is the only apostle who guessed the answer to the question, although the answer is never revealed in the text. But the answer is clear: you are like me.
The implications of this answer are far-reaching, and led to the complete annihilation of the Gnostics and of their sacred texts by orthodox Christianity. The Gospel of Thomas was one of these sacred texts, and was thought lost until 1945, when it was discovered in Nag Hammadi, Egypt. The astonishing thing is that Blanchot's Thomas the Obscure was published in 1945 as well, having been written immediately before the discovery of the lost Gospel. And yet, the lost Gospel was the missing piece that provided the answer to the enigma: what does Maurice Blanchot look like?
Blanchot has done an almost inconceivable thing by figuring out how to keep the ego out of the work of art in this way. The fact that he could not have known about the existence of the Nag Hammadi library text when he composed Thomas the Obscure can only be explained, it seems to me, by a kind of mystical channeling, or gnosis, on Blanchot's part. In other words, this information could only have been revealed to him.
Such revelation brings us to the question of the ego in cinema. Because the art of cinema requires the photographic reproduction of reality, Blanchot's astonishing solution to the problem is not an option for the filmmaker. In fact, the opposite strategy is required: a complex dialectic between celebrity (a quasi-inevitability) and anonymity (almost a spiritual necessity). In my own work, I have chosen to address this problem by making films about myself, and by consequently documenting the most intimate details of my private life. At the same time, I have employed one of the distinguishing elements of cinema: namely its unique relation to randomness, which one could also call Fate or Reality or God.
Another way of saying this is: how does one channel God in cinema? For me, the answer has been: by removing oneself from the equation. In other words: by surrendering will. But one cannot simply remove oneself from the equation, nor can one make a film without exerting will. So what does one do? A complex dialectic is required, in which will and the surrender of will work hand in hand, and in which ego and the repudiation of ego also go hand in hand.
All of my films have been an attempt to bring God back into the picture, so as to take my own ego out of the center of the frame. But the ego is a hydra, and keeps growing back. So how does one slay this self-regenerating dragon?
In I Don't Hate Las Vegas Anymore, I dispensed with the script entirely and trusted to chance (a.k.a. God) to provide the narrative of the film. I also enacted the dialectical struggle between ego and non-ego (between will and the surrender of will) by being both actor and director. These two roles were usually in conflict, but the embodying of that conflict was the true subject of the film. The result is a film directed by God, in which the ego self is not denied, but in which it doesn't have the upper hand either. It is an instance of God being trickier than the ego.
In I Was Possessed By God, the strategy was more direct and almost scientific. I ingested 5 grams (an extremely large dose) of hallucinogenic mushrooms during the making of the film. This obliterated my ego, at least ostensibly and for a few hours, and allowed God to "speak directly" through me. The ego is still there I believe, but it has been put in its place and, at least for a while, is no longer running the show.
With In the Bathtub of the World, my goal was to reveal the existence of God in all things. In order to do this, I resorted to randomness once again, and to a deliberate critique of "specialness." The film exploits the most democratic genre that exists, the home movie, in order to reveal the workings of the divine in all of our lives. I had no idea what would happen in the film, but I knew that only a subtle combination of will (demanding of myself that I shoot one minute everyday) and surrender (I would try to listen each day to "hear" what I was supposed to do that day) would lead to the result that I desired, namely a film that would also be a work of art, meaning a work that has in some way been channeled.
So who am I in all this? An Other, certainly. But also a specific Other: God. And also Thomas, Christ's twin brother, whose full name is given in the New Testament as "Thomas Judas Didymus," which means twin in three languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek). And also Christ, the link between God and Man, whom Thomas touches after Christ's death and in so doing finds himself transfigured, understanding that he is thereby touching his own death and that he is connected to his own divinity by death. And also Maurice Blanchot, whose face I have never seen and most likely never will, but which I know to be identical to mine. And also you, "cher lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère."
* the title is from Rimbaud