Art and Time
“Who are my contemporaries?”Juan Gelman asks himself. Juan says that sometimes he comes across men who smell of fear, in Buenos Aires, Paris, or anywhere in the world, and feels that these men are not his contemporaries. But there is a Chinese who, thousands of years ago, wrote a poem about a goatherd who is far from his beloved, and yet can hear in the middle of the night, in the middle of the snow, the sound of her comb running through her hair. And reading this distant poem, Juan finds that yes, these people––the poet, the goatherd and the woman––are truly his contemporaries1.” Eduardo Galeano
However hurt and shattered one might be, one can always find true contemporaries anywhere in time. Who are your true contemporaries?
Eduardo Hughes Galeano (1940-2015) was a Uruguayan journalist, writer and novelist, as well as being a champion of the Left, who fought for the liberation of oppressed people in Latin America. He was considered to be "global soccer's pre-eminent man of letters" and "a literary giant of the Latin American left."2 I’ve carried Galeano’s Book of Embraces with me over the years drawing on his prose poems and brief stories for talks and teishos, as well as recommending his book to students, when I don’t actually give them a copy. We can get a sense of the Dharma in Galeano’s book, especially in his concluding piece, entitled “The Gust”:
The wind whistles within me.
I am naked. Master of nothing, master of no one, not even
of my own convictions. I am my face in the wind,
against the wind, and I am the wind that strikes my face.3
The intimacy of wind and person, conveyed from diverse angles, perfectly conveys the Way, and is indeed a viable koan.
Juan Gelman was born in Buenos Aires in 1930, and died in Mexico City in 2014. A celebrated poet during his lifetime – his published output includes more than 20 books of poetry – Gelman, like Galeano, was a committed human rights activist. Exiled from Argentina after the military coup of 1976, he lived in Europe, the United States, and Mexico, where he ultimately settled. In 1976, his daughter Nora Eva, aged 19, his son Marcelo Ariel, aged 20, and his pregnant daughter-in-law, Maria Claudia, aged 19, were kidnapped from their home, becoming three of the 30,000 desaparecidos – the people who “vanished” during the reign of the right wing military junta.
Maria Claudia was seven months pregnant at that time. Gelman’s daughter, Nora Eva, survived, but Gelman’s son and daughter-in-law were killed.In 1990 Gelman was taken to identify his son's remains – he had been executed and buried in a barrel filled with sand and cement – and years later, in 2000, he was able to trace his granddaughter, born in a backdoor hospital before Maria Claudia's murder and given to a pro-government family in Uruguay. The remains of Maria Claudia have not yet been recovered4.
In the face of such tragedy, we can only imagine how shattered and heartbroken Gelman must have been. In the face of his struggles and the agonies of his life, we can understand why he may have sought, and found contemporaries elsewhere in time.
Intimacy across time
In Galeano’s “Art and Time” the sound of the woman’s comb running through her hair dissolves the distance between the goatherder and his beloved, as well as the time barrier between the unnamed Chinese poet who lives who knows when and the twentieth century Argentinian poet Juan Gelman––who together with Galeano recounting Gelman’s story, and us in the twenty-first century, listening in––casts such a net of intimacy across the centuries. The poetry of this small intimate act carries such depth and resonance.
Robert Aitken once said to me, “The Way is grounded in genuine experience and poetry.” In the light of his words, the poetic image of the beloved’s comb going through her hair “in the middle of the night, in the middle of the snow” evokes the unfathomable experience of who we truly are: words heard or read so deeply, so intensely, that everything else vanishes. Such experiences are timeless, and they defy adequate description.
Presence, attention, love
Regarding the past, conventional wisdom has it that, although we have memories and records of it of varying reliability, the past is gone. Moreover, the future is not yet, and can only be guessed at. Accordingly, I have unbounded admiration for people who plan their future in great detail; it takes courage to drive pylons into airy nothingness, and to plan minutely what can’t remotely be foreseen. Regarding the future, any sense that we live on after we die finds conventionally expressed as: we live on for a time in the memories of our families and others who know us until the last time someone speaks our name, or thinks of us – and we finally die.
Earlier we learned of the fate of Gelman’s son and daughter-in-law, and the appalling suffering that their tragic end must have occasioned him and his family. None of us is proof against such a tragedy, and it is surely important to attend to those who come into our lives while we still have time. Love is forged and fostered through such attention, not only romantically, but in broader, grittier ways. Such intimate connection arises from the attention we give people, and how we support them, as expressed at the conclusion of Gelman’s poem “End.”
Poetry is a way of living.
Look at the people at your side.
Do they eat? Suffer? Sing? Cry?
Help them fight for their hands, their eyes, their mouth, for the kiss to kiss and the kiss to give away, for their table, their bread, their letter a and their letter h, for their past — were they not children? — for their present, for the piece of peace, of history and happiness that belongs to them, for the piece of love, big, small, sad, joy, that belongs to them and is taken away in the name of what, of what?
Your life will then be an innumerable river to be called pedro, juan, ana, maria, bird, lung, the air, my shirt, violin, sunset, stone, that handkerchief, old waltz, wooden horse.
Poetry is this.
Afterward, write it.5
Why does one write, if not to put one’s pieces together? 6 Writing helps us to connect with our depths, and is a means to let go of our limited views about the world and ourselves, and come to empathize with others across temporal and cultural barriers, even alien ones. As with meditation, writing can help us to open our heart to the plight of others, giving us access to the thoughts and emotions of the dispossessed, the wounded, and the dying. This was surely the impulse that drove the work of social activists such as Galeano and Gelman. By writing – and reading – we are opened up, and the distance between us and the world of sentient beings, in their joy and suffering, shrinks. Imaginative identification, moral imagination, or empathy––call it what you will––helps to connect us to others, regardless of colour or creed. Geordie Williamson writes:
The dignity and fraternity that we grant others by our imaginative and empathetic attentions is universal or it is nothing. Homo sum humani a me alienum pulo––“I am human and nothing of that which is human is alien to me”––wrote Roman playwright Terence more than two millennia ago. What is less known about Terence is that he was a Berber. He was a brown-skinned citizen of the Republic.7
The Way deepens, and we deepen in the Way, as we learn to include more of the suffering of the world, as well as our own. When we enter the moment fully and experience like this, we discover that such suffering is our true face and home.
The timeless moment
Let us return to the notion of true contemporaries. There is the sense that our true contemporaries––no matter how far off they may be historically––come to life by virtue of the poetic image in this selfsame moment arising from unknowable depths. We don’t know in advance what this moment will be, and surely it doesn’t come marked as past, present, or future. We say, out of convenience, that it is “the present moment” – but “present moment” is a convenient fiction, because the moment is unbounded, implicitly including past and future within itself. It is timeless – yet in the same breath, we experience it as fleeting.
When we enter the moment fully and are intimate with it, we are freed from our sense of passing time. We come to see that time is a concept; the deeper we live the Way the more the concept vanishes off the edges of our experience. We live more and more within the vastness of what we provisionally call “the present.
Our remembering unfolds now, our planning unfolds now, our regret unfolds now, our anticipation unfolds now. Our reflections on the past, as well as those on the future unfold now. Our whole life finds expression as this very moment, including our birth and our death, that of our true contemporaries wherever they are in time, and the birth and death of constellations and galaxies, and indeed of the universe itself.
The deeper we live the Way the more our conventional notions of time are nudged towards the edges of our experience. Time is inexorable, granted; and surely sickness, old age and death bear down. And yet the segmented sequence of past, present and future is increasingly gathered into this puckering of time we call “now” – which is no other than our true face and home. When we experience like this we come into our own – and “our own,” beyond any ownership, is immeasurable.
Intimacy across time
When we realize who we truly are, the gap between the world and ourselves dissolves in the softest of avalanches. With this comes the timeless intimacy evoked by Wumen in his commentary on the koan of Zhaozhou’sDog:
When you pass through the barrier of the gateless gate, you will not only interview Zhaozhou intimately, you will walk hand in hand with the ancestral teachers in the successive generations of our lineage – the hair of their eyebrows entangled with yours, seeing with the same eyes, hearing with the same ears. Won’t that be fulfilling? 8
This is true meeting. With this, the old teachers are no other than our true contemporaries; they live in us, they live as us. In the same breath, our thoughts and feelings are not other than that meeting.
Genuine realization transcends time and culture, and it is by its nature, timeless. No need to throw away our watches though; punctuality is the courtesy of kings and queens. But within the flux there is a mystery. So who are your true contemporaries?