Visions of the Ineffable: the Artist’s Calling

Winter Boats P1040977
It’s nearly ten Thursday night, an intensely productive day!
 
Not with photography or writing, my two top priority daily activities, but a melange of activities from the time I woke up this morning until now. I should go to sleep by midnight tonight. When I stay up later I don’t wake up early. That augers poorly for productivity because, for whatever reason, getting up early (in the winter, while it’s still dark) gives me a sense of being “the early bird”. I feel an automatic advantage, like having money in the bank for whatever I need!
 
Right now it’s all about productivity. This morning I sat down with my McDonald’s coffee, sausage biscuit and my half of an apple from home and quickly jotted down my top priorities based on the list I generate every day on Apple’s Reminders app. Topping the lists with several entries is photography – no contest!
Since I started what I called a “sabbatical” from clinic work in May 2008, I’ve struggled with questions that became fundamental: what now? Slowly the answers took shape. The final (as final as anything can be in our changing lives) answers didn’t fall far from where the stones I’d thrown earlier had  fallen but now, after almost five years, there is conviction in the answers and a past history to make them credible, more real.
 
As a child I courted the idea of becoming a priest. I’ve thought and thought about my obsessive fascination with religion. Today I may have turned that obsession into something almost sterile by clinical analyses, but analyses are what they are.
 
I felt strangely unlike other children around me when I was growing up. I certainly didn’t do what other boys my age were doing. I was much more into my inner life, listening to voices inside me and visions in my head. This caused me a lot of grief. When you’re little, peers don’t take kindly to anything that looked different from them. And adults are not much help either. They often have lost touch with what it is to be a child. Both adults and children can be thoughtlessly cruel. They don’t mean to be but someone “different” is not always understood.
 
I think it was from that sense of being different that mind manufactured the idea I was inferior and therefore weak and powerless that religion and its promise of salvation became such a magnet for me. On the other hand, it is quite possible too that my interest in religion was karmic, something that came into the world with me when I was born – given the circumstances surrounding my parents and surrounding me.
 
Whatever the motivations, the image of a priest haunted my early childhood. On the ruled pages of my grade school pad I drew altars, saints, and priests in their sacerdotal lace and velvet that to my child’s eyes were not so much finery as sacred accoutrements to access the mysterious and incomprehensibly powerful. We all seek power even when we deny it. The shape of desire does change with time and so does power. For adolescent boys power might be athletic prowess or muscular development; for adolescent boys sexual conquests or, in the case of girls, sexual attractiveness and popularity; for young people in their twenties it might be how elite the colleges that admit them or how well-paying the jobs they secure after graduation. Power changes shape as we go through the phases of life.
 
My mother’s family, the Salazars and Gregorioses, were devoted Aglipayans. In the Philippines of my childhood, Aglipayans were a significant minority in many towns and cities of the country. The revolution against Spain had occurred in the lifetime of many of the older folks like my grandmother but the Americans had returned churches and church property to the Roman Catholic Church. Our little Aglipayan church was wood and galvanized iron. It sat at the edge of the plaza in La Paz. Being a part of that minority church doubtless played a role in my childhood imagination. Forever after I would be someone on the edge, never a mainstream protagonist!
 
My father was irreligious. My mother took us kids to church every Sunday and the holy days of the church calendar. Dad stayed home and worked with his horses in the cuadra behind our house. That was his Sunday worship. I knew enough even as a child that if I said that I wanted to be a priest my father would explode in his Jovian anger. “Linti!” was his favorite invective. And I was enough a part of the ethos of the times in 1950s Philippines that I was carried along by the then currents of progress. To advance your wellbeing and that of the family you were going to have, a young Filipino had two options: become a lawyer or a doctor. 
 
Priesthood used to be the third in the triumvirate but among people who came up from the ranks of the poor, priesthood was a luxury they couldn’t afford. My father emptied chamber pots as a child. He lost his mother while still a boy. By sheer doggedness he managed to finish college at Silliman University in Dumaguete, then got his Masters in English. Both he and my mother were teachers. Teaching was as far as they could go with their limited financial resources.
 
But my dad was aptly named Salvador (“Savior”). He might not always be considerate of his family but to others and to strangers he had an open hand. He was always helping his brothers and sister, even helping Lola, my mother’s mom. But he would have never understood why his only son would want to be a priest. He was an altogether secular humanist. 
 
Ironically I too have become a humanist. All these years I’ve spent studying religions and comparative mythology only to become what to my father was a natural propensity for pragmatism and common sense!
 
Both my older sister and I followed as best as we could in our parents’ footsteps. We had to do them one better in terms of career, and, in the case of Tatay’s charitable work, to become doctors was a forgone conclusion. Somehow, without anybody saying a word, medical school was where our schooling led.
 
I couldn’t be a priest but I could be a psychiatrist. When in my senior year in medical school, after spending seven years towards the goal of becoming a physician, I discovered I didn’t really want to work with physical illnesses – cut people up, treat cough and fevers, deal with life-threatening emergencies all my life. To be a psychiatrist was the only compromise.
 
A psychiatrist before the era of powerful psychotropic drugs was very much like the priest of ancient times. The Pope still holds today the title that the Roman Emperor used to wield as the head of Roman society: Pontifex Maximus. In Europe as in Asia and many other pockets of pre-Christian societies, the political leader of a community was responsible for insuring fertility, good harvests, good health and prosperity for his people. He (seldom was this a woman after patriarchy overwhelmed matriarchy with the advent of agriculture and husbandry) did this by leading them in sacred ceremonies believed to bridge the gap between the human and divine realms. Thus in China the Son of Heaven led annual ceremonies to assure the prosperity of the Middle Kingdom and we still have Tiantan, the Temple of Heaven (literally “altar of heaven”) in the Forbidden City, Beijing’s main tourist attraction.
 
The priest was the mediator between the ordinary and the supernatural and he did this through the mind’s capacity for symbolic action that anthropologists call “myth.” In ordinary conversation, by myth people usually mean “something false.” In depth psychology, myth is a universal pattern of human thought that activated forces beyond the logical reasoning we are prone to use confronted with workaday challenges.
 
From the early work of scientists and physicians like Jean-Martin Charcot, Josef Breuer, Freud and Jung we began to explore activities that these students of the mind called “subconscious” and “unconscious.” If 6th century (BCE) Athenian philosophers taught us logic and dialectic, the 19th century (CE) psychologists brought our attention to those kinds of activities that fell outside logical, sequential thinking and we are finding that the former cover a whole lot more territory! The mind, some say, is man’s final frontier!
 
Today, with psychiatrists primarily designated to prescribe mind-altering drugs to treat mental disorders like depression, mood disorders, psychosis, and anxiety and psychotherapists gone the way of dinosaurs counseling having retreated into the realm of logic and pragmatism, who functions as mediator between the ordinary and the numinous? When we are struck with incomprehensible loss, catastrophe or pain, where do we turn for comfort if not answers? Psychologists too are moving away from a study of the mind to the study of the brain as science has made our younger generations more materialistic. What used to be the province of physician-researchers is now the bailiwick of Ph.Ds, the modern-day savants of which America is still the main producer with our top-drawer universities and research institutions.
 
Artists, I think they have taken on the mantle of mediators and mediatrices with the world of symbols and meaning, of forces we do not comprehend for being the shadow side (a Jungian term) of our workaday world. There is only so much that materialist science can accomplish. Scientists now theorize about particles so tiny they are indistinguishable from wave forms but practical science is still largely materialistic.
 
Not all artists by all means! Many are simple purveyors of shock and surprise, aspects admittedly also in the realm of the ineffable but not its most powerful denizens. Logic alone cannot provide an antidote  to restrictive materialism. We need myths and symbols to enhance our lives with significance, beyond what a brick-and-mortar world can provide; we need emotions that shove us above our mortal ambition; we need something more than just physical or mental achievement; we crave something more. To be wholly human we must outgrow our human skins.
 
If shamans used to link us to the redemptive world beyond the reach of ordinary mortals (as paleolithic paintings by Neanderthals in  caves in France and Spain even today emanate power and mystery), if Christian priests of the first centuries of the Common Era brought supra-sensory nourishment that led men to meet martyrdom with joy and equanimity, if psychotherapists in the 19th century brought comfort and understanding to victims of unspeakable trauma, maybe in the 21st century artists can restore to us a sense of the sublime:
 

“Not in entire forgetfulness,

And not in utter nakedness,

But training clouds of glory do we come

From God, who is our home:

Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

William Wordsworth, Ode, Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood

 
It is a heaven increasingly rare and precious, something with a mandate it may be too insubstantial to consummate: counteract our abject materialism and bring us back something of the world that religion used to mediate, a world of mystery and power that is ours, too, if only we can see!
To me this is an artist’s authentic, essential calling.!

About orlando gustilo

Digital content producer, photographer, writer.
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2 Responses to Visions of the Ineffable: the Artist’s Calling

  1. ShimonZ says:

    I agree with you that the artist often has a transcendental relationship to the conventional frameworks of society. I found much to identify with in this chapter that reflected on your youth, and your feelings of being different from others. I remember feeling similar when I was young. Recently, by way of reading the blogs of others, I began to realize that many suffered from similar complaints.

    • orlando gustilo says:

      The sense of being different lies close to the core of my identity i.e. has shaped so many of the choices I’ve made in life. Did you ever read Herman Hesse’s Demian? It was one of the first mention of what I felt as a child – Demian with his “mark of Cain” that marked him not as a villain as he is seen in the Torah but as someone who was outside the pale so to speak: conventional judgments did not involve him. He marched to his own drummer. BTW I enjoyed visiting Israel in November. Very enlightening visit. Spent half a day at the Yad Vashem, walked along the shoreline of a stormy Tel Aviv, stayed at a Jerusalem hotel after a bomb had fallen just south of the city. Being an “outsider” is essential to me. I don’t have to be anyone else. Thanks for your comments.

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