Down Among the Dust and Pollen

It’s been around a year since I first heard Fleet Foxes’ “The Shrine/An Argument,” and I’m still in love with it. So is my husband, who said this morning, “I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that [this] is one of the best songs ever… It’s everything amazing all rolled into one.” And that’s coming from a sometimes agonizingly picky musician.

If you haven’t heard it yet, it’s definitely folk, reminiscent of ’60s groups like Simon and Garfunkel, but refreshed by non-folk elements like the free jazz bit at the end. It’s mysterious and ambient, unexpected and austere, progressive without being off-putting. It’s deeply, tenderly spiritual in a personal, unsentimental, non-evangelistic way. It’s flakes of sunlight, dark caverns, green apples, hidden pools, gray ghosts of fog drifting along the chill northwestern coastline. It physically hurts — like lovesickness — to hear it. Robin Pecknold singing, “Sunlight over me no matter what I do,” stretching out his pretty-folk-singer voice to release a brief, hoarse cry, gives me chills. The lovesickness is for those wafts of simplicity and purity and the kind of primal spirituality that escapes language and ritual, that’s only observation and feeling, that come in certain pensive moments I wish I could gather up and cling to, but that inevitably slip away the moment I recognize them for what they are.

“The Shrine/An Argument” also has an incredible music video directed by Sean Pecknold (Robin’s older brother and the man behind The video, like the song, is eerily mythic, at once surreal and earth-bound. Listen to the song with your eyes closed first, then watch the video below.

Humility and Loneliness: The Art of Caspar David Friedrich

Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) was a German painter of the Romantic period, an era in which a growing disillusionment for industrialization and materialism turned people toward the search for a deeper sense of spirituality and greater connections with nature. Like his contemporary JMW Turner, Friedrich sought sublimity, but took a different path to reach it; while Turner aimed at astonishing through horror, Friedrich sought to engender spiritual contemplation, to draw man into the great mystery of existence, through misty, bleak, vast-seeming allegorical landscapes. In his paintings, man is often little more than a modest shadow within the swaths of forest or sea and sky.

As art scholar Elizabeth Prettejohn has noted, Friedrich’s paintings often make use of the Rückenfigur — a human figure, often in the foreground, seen from behind, contemplating the view. Because the Rückenfigur is faceless, anonymous, the viewer is encouraged to project him- or herself into that role. This not only strengthens the contemplative experience; it is also intended to suggest that the scene is not a representation of objective reality, but a version of it portrayed through a subjective lens. Thus there is an existential element in Friedrich’s paintings, which suggest that nature is not inherently emotive or meaningful; it becomes so through man’s efforts to discover meaning.

Friedrich believed that “the artist should paint not only what he sees before him, but also what he sees within him.” A deep sense of loneliness and a preoccupation with death are prolific in Friedrich’s art and, by implication, were within Friedrich as well. Yet Friedrich seems to have found beauty and spiritual substance in these thoughts, and his paintings serve as gentle reminders that the loneliness of human existence and the ever-looming presence of Death don’t have to be received with misery or terror, but can in fact lead to peace and enlightenment.

Monk by the Sea - 1810

Seashore by Moonlight - 1836

The Abbey in the Oakwood - 1809

Two Men by the Sea - 1817

For more information about Caspar David Friedrich and his work, visit Caspar David Friedrich: The Complete Works.

Everything’s Empty: The Poetry of Cold Mountain

Taking a break from work today, I read several poems by Hanshan (“Cold Mountain”), a near-mythical poet who wrote in the Taoist and Chan Buddhist tradition. Living as a fugitive during the Tang dynasty, he composed his poems on stones, trees, and the walls of caves. The following are my favorites so far.

(Note: I’ve left the punctuation as I found it, since several sources have recorded it the same way. I believe these translations were done by Red Pine.)

I recently hiked to a temple in the clouds
and met some Taoist priests.
Their star caps and moon caps askew
they explained they lived in the wild.
I asked them the art of transcendence;
they said it was beyond compare,
and called it the peerless power.
The elixir meanwhile was the secret of the gods
and that they were waiting for a crane at death,
or some said they’d ride off on a fish.
Afterwards I thought this through
and concluded they were all fools.
Look at an arrow shot into the sky-
how quickly it falls back to earth.
Even if they could become immortals,
they would be like cemetery ghosts.
Meanwhile the moon of our mind shines bright.
How can phenomena compare?
As for the key to immortality,
within ourselves is the chief of spirits.
Don’t follow Lords of the Yellow Turban
persisting in idiocy, holding onto doubts.

Children, I implore you
get out of the burning house now.
Three carts await outside
to save you from a homeless life.
Relax in the village square
before the sky, everything’s empty.
No direction is better or worse,
East just as good as West.
Those who know the meaning of this
are free to go where they want.