Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Burning Bushes

Everywhere I walk these days, the trees have burst into varicolored flame. Tiny tongues of fire lick up everything from humble turnpikes to generous stretches of river valley. The blaze reaches to the sky; sometimes an austere grey canvas, sometimes a dizzying, robin-egg blue. In the aftermath, we are surrounded by the embers, and the nose catches the musky scent of smoke devouring the annual sacrifice spiraling down. Soon the odor will be hushed by winter's chilly blanket, but for now the picture is still poignant and sharp.

A burning bush is a sign, a happening, a conversation with God himself. It means shedding your shoes in awestruck wow, being thankful for the beauty of the earth. This experience usually catches us by surprise, interrupts us, and we must let it. On Mount Horeb, Moses is preoccupied with the daily work of caring for his father-in-law's flocks when he notices the burning bush. He says to himself, "I've got to see why this bush is not burned up, though it is in flame." Then, after he turns aside to look, he hears the Lord speaking to him. It's like those words in the hymnal:

For the joy of ear and eye
For the heart and brain's delight,
For the mystic harmony
Sinking sense to sound and sight ("For The Beauty of the Earth", 1864). 

This is actually quite extraordinary if you stop to think about it. How is it that Something flashes and leaps through the gate of the eye, crashes through to the mind and makes the Image on the retina mean something, sinking it down to the level of sense? Not only that, it opens up the other senses, like hearing, tasting, smelling, touch - maybe a host of other sensations yet undiscovered. Could it be that Imagination is simply responding, much like Moses did to the burning bush? That is, turning aside from routine, following a curiosity, humbly shedding shoes, and finally - maybe - hearing from God Himself?

Because I am a writer, I spend a good deal of my time grouping words into images in order to have an impact. The stakes are pretty high. I wait for tongues of fire - to speak truth in as many languages as possible. How else am I to get people to turn off from the normal path? If I want to arrest my reader, it could very well be with a common thing - a shrub or a house or a spoon or a  library - but to make it worth leaving the task at hand, it must be "on fire" somehow. Not only that, a further miracle must occur. That a tree would burn is plausible. That a burning tree is not consumed is impossible. It is that leap from the everyday to the miraculous that I want to effect for those who read my writings, and that is no small feat.

There is another possibility in art, and that is to let the bush burn to the ground. Afterwards, you deal with the ash and aftermath. It may be that something may rise, Phoenix-like, but it must be utterly lost before it can be found again. This is beauty in the midst of devastation. The German artist Anselm Kiefer gives us a glimpse of this approach, with his massive, post-apocalyptic projects that build with remains of the manmade world.

The recent documentary by Sophie Fiennes which features his work is entitled "Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow" (2010), which is Kiefer's paraphrase of a verse from Isaiah. In the passage to which he refers, we see the city after the Day of Judgment. The people are left with crumbling ruins where "thorns will overrun her citadels, nettles and brambles her strongholds" and birds and jackals run wild over the tumbled stones. It's a desperate picture, one that resounds with the human condition in many respects, and one that Kiefer seems to insist upon in his work. Another example is his re-imagining of libraries (maybe the ancient one at Alexandria, burned down according to legend) as a massive, leaden bookshelf overcast with gloom and ashen hues. Maybe he is attempting to bring substance to a lost thing. Some of his leaden books literally have wings attached. Is this tragic or hopeful? Or both?

Maybe the test of a well-wrought image is whether it burns up with the consuming. And the test of a culture is what it does in the wake of the disaster. Are we capable of recognizing good images in the vast, charred morass of media and cultural production? Vigen Guroian, an ethicist, has suggested that we are in a crisis of imagination, and that this is a deeply moral problem. I tend to agree with him. As he explains: "The moral imagination is...the very process by which the self makes metaphors out of images given my experience and then employs these metaphors to find and suppose moral correspondences in experience." (24, Tending the Heart of Virtue). This is not a simplistic matter of right and wrong, not initially. It begins with a failure to see, to delight, to understand - but the consequences are far-reaching.

Please. Let us look for the beauty. Yes, this world is scattered with emptied images that invite us to grieve. But it is also full-to-bursting with blazing branches that refuse to be consumed. It is time we took off our shoes and listened.