Doug Bruns

Fancy I cannot manufacture.

In Creativity, Life, The Examined Life, Writing on May 14, 2012 at 6:00 am

Van Gogh, self portrait

Artists did not depict themselves as the main subject of their work until the early fifteenth century, which correlates with the rise of individual wealth and power. A hundred or so years later Montaigne made himself the center of his literary work, creating a new genre in the process. In the early twentieth century Joyce declared that “The artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.”

Raising a family of three children and sustaining a long and successful marriage has not afforded me time to pare my nails in distant observation. I have dirt under my nails. This project (good to know my efforts here can be rendered a “project”) reflects a modern pace, whereby I attempt to get a thing done without a lot of fancy dancing around the subject. In this instance the subject being me and all the subjects that interest me. (How’s that for a circular thesis?) It may occasionally seem like fancy dancing, but it is not. I’m as straight-forward as I know how to be. Fancy I cannot manufacture.

Some say the advent of the self-portrait correlates to the improvements of polished silvering in the manufacturing of mirrors. I am trying to polish my mirror and determine exactly what it holds–though I am aware of an ancient warning of this conceit. The zen master, Nangaku asked his student, Baso, what he is trying to attain by sitting meditation. “I am trying to become a Buddha,” replied Baso. Then Nangaku picked up a roof tile and began to grind it against a rock.

“What are you doing, Master?” asked Baso.

“I am polishing it to make it a mirror.”

“How could polishing a tile make it a mirror?” Baso inquired.

“How could sitting meditation make a Buddha?” replied Nangaku.

Baso then asked: “What should I then do?”

“If you are driving a cart and it does not move,” said Nangaku, “do you whip the cart or the ox?”

Interestingly, Van Gogh’s self-portraits are all of the left side of side of his face, the right side sporting the mutilated ear. Can a person peer so deeply inside, yet expect to hide the obvious? Is that not whipping the cart? Call it self-knowledge, enlightenment, clarity, t/Truth–the ox is to be whipped.

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