Monday, May 12, 2014

Where there never was a hat

The semi-serious soundtrack to "Buddhism and Modern Thought" got another number today. Better still, the song has actually featured in this blog before, not quite six years ago - when it would never have occurred to me that it might have affinities with Buddhism!

It happened quite accidentally (if there are accidents). A student was describing his final project, a rather technical exploration of the affinities between Nāgārjuna and Derridean deconstruction. To illustrate the key move, which he called the "demolition of causality" of noting that things are both entirely caused by conditions and distinct from them, he invited us to imagine a hat. The hat both is nothing but the cloth (or whatever) of which it's made, and not that cloth - just as the cloth is nothing but the threads of which it's woven and not those threads, and the thread... well, you get the idea.

The lumpy hat he ultimately drew was a reference to Le petit prince - really a boa constrictor swallowing an elephant. I didn't notice, as I was sure he was alluding to Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George, whose perhaps most lovely song is called "Finishing the Hat," but he claims never to have heard of it. (He's heard of it now - I sent him this link to Mandy Patinkin's singing it in the original Broadway production.) The song, like the musical, is about the glorious tragedy of the artist - in this case Georges Seurat as he was painting La Grande Jatte - whose attempts to capture the true nature of experience somehow prevent him from ever finding a home in human reality.

... Finishing the hat,
How you have to finish the hat.
How you watch the rest of the world
From a window
While you finish the hat...

At the end of the song, encountered in this accidentally Buddhist context, comes aa rather profoundly Buddhist sounding dénouement:

Finishing a hat...
Starting on a hat..
Finishing a hat...
Look, I made a hat...
Where there never was a hat.

And even before that, something that certainly could be about emptiness, the emptiness apprehended when one mindfully notices the arising and falling away of all apparently solid experience.

Mapping out a sky.
What you feel like, planning a sky.
What you feel when voices that come
Through the window
Until they distance and die,
Until there's nothing but sky...

I don't want to overdo it! ...

But I did do an internet search on Sondheim and Buddhism. Nada - but that established nothing. Derrida was, as far as anyone knows, as unaware of Nāgārjuna's work as Nāgārjuna's of his. Isn't the nature of truth that it can and will be discovered independently over and over again? I'm out on a limb with the particular case of this hat trick, I'm aware, though Merleau-Ponty might agree that the hat is the perfect representation of the world we feel comfortable enough in to take shelter in yet never see. (If we had to be able to see it all the time we wouldn't be able to take shelter under it, now would we?)

Enough of that! A few other searches did call up something interesting, though: an essay on La Grade Jatte by someone who's becoming a favorite Buddhist writer of mine, Cynthia Thatcher, "Disconnect the Dots." (The image at top is from the article.) She doesn't engage Seurat's quixotic attempt to disaggregate our sensations of color, but she might have. She's discussing her meditation teacher Achan Sobin Namto's promise that it's possible to have an unmediated experience of the world, in the split second between sensation and naming, though it takes much meditation. The experience is always fleeting, and can't be commanded, but it can change everything. As she recounts it, her first such experience involved what, that split second later, she realized was birdsong:

At first I didn’t even recognize the sensation as an auditory form as opposed to a sight or smell. The next moment, the mental dots connected and the word “bird” slid into the mind. But the label didn’t erase the experience. Some veil had slipped, if just for a second.
When Achan Sobin walked in, I could hardly wait to blurt out: “It’s just a sound! It has nothing to do with the bird.” The event had somehow shaken my world.
“Nothing to do with the bird?” he asked.
He laughed and nodded. “Very good!”
“But it’s not even a sound.”
“No,” he confirmed, “by the truth, not even a sound.”

"Nothing to do with the bird" -  she wouldn't say it, but I call that the song of emptiness! (Nāgārjuna's "emptiness" has recently been nicely described in another piece noticing affinities between Buddhist and ostensibly non-Buddhist knowledges, Graham Priest's "Beyond True and False": things are ‘empty’ (sunya). This does not mean that they are non-existent; only that they are what they are because of how they relate to other things.)

You may think I've completely lost it by now, having gone from a student's presentation on an uncaused correlation to something it wasn't inspired by, and pushing onward from that through a failed internet search to arrive triumphantly at nothing! (It turns out that things are what they are because of how they relate to all other things.) But who said there was a hat in the first place?  咱们在公园一块儿逛吧。

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