Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Caravaggio's smile

Has the Dalai Lama spent too long in the West? I read recently that he had offered his support to a ‘course in happiness’. Perhaps he risks sponsoring the idea that life is some kind of ‘project’. How to be happy seems very much like a project to me and not what you might call a Buddhist one.

Life – as my old friend Tom Szasz once said - is “something to be lived, as intelligently, as competently, as well as we can, day in and day out. Life is something we must endure. There is no solution for it”. That says it all really. 

This fixation on the chimera of happiness is folly personified. Feelings just exist. They ‘come’ and they ‘go’. One moment you are happy and then next moment – whoosh – another fickle feeling has displaced it. But that too will be displaced in turn by some other emotion. Why waste time and effort fiddling with something that is so mercurial and transient?

The Japanese psychiatrist Shoma Morita was greatly influenced by Zen Buddhism. In his view people thought and felt too much – and did not do enough. Well said. Morita advocated that we should ‘accept our feelings, know our purpose and do what needs to be done’. 

My father, whose working class culture must have been a distant Western relative of Zen often said –“there’s nothing else for it’. I assumed he meant that we must accept our situation and get on with ‘doing what needs to be done’. Once you have finished crying over the spilled milk of life you need to do something to deal with – or at least live with – the situation; and you need to do it NOW!

Happiness is just a feeling – like anger, irritation, joy or delight. The idea that we should ‘be happy’ is so daft it is hardly worth talking about – but I shall persevere. We only know we ‘are happy’ because once we were miserable or bored or frustrated. The change in mood may be welcome but it is just a change – like the weather. Now the sun is shining but at some point the clouds will gather, the sky will darken and it will rain. Weather never lasts. NOTHING LASTS! At some point the sun will break through (again). To flip another cliché – the light at the end of the tunnel is merely a sign that another tunnel is approaching. Such is life.     

An old academic colleague – Dr Alec Grant – wrote that: I once stood in front of Caravaggio's The Taking of Christ, in Dublin. I lost an hour. It was a numinous experience”.

I wonder what kind of experience Alec had that day in Dublin, as he was ‘filled with the presence of divinity’ - which is one reading of ‘numinosity’;  or as he was spiritually elevated, connected to his ‘higher emotions’ and ‘aesthetic sense’? What kind of feeling did Caravaggio’s masterpiece engender in Alec? Was he happy? Did he really care?

It seems more likely that, like anyone who ‘gets lost’ in front of a work of art (or in music, a book or play) Alec experienced all sorts of feeling as he engaged with something bigger; something much more ineffable; something which he 'felt' as a ‘numinous experience’.

I don’t know if art is meant to make us happy – it seems clear that a lot of art is unsettling or disturbing, often intentionally so, like Goya’s ‘black paintings’. If art has any function perhaps it is to arrest us: stopping us in the tracks of our everyday meanderings; inviting, if not tricking, us into contemplation; nudging us towards the ‘numinous experience’. Art which is decorative, nostalgic or romantic has its place and may delight us, offer comfort, help us feel secure. However important this might be it is unlikely to change us.

I suspect that Alec Grant walked away from Caravaggio that day a different man. Perhaps he knew himself in some sense ‘better’. 

Perhaps he was confused and genuinely lost and knew himself ‘less’. Either way, he knew that he had had an important experience – one that might live with him for a long time.

Either way, Caravaggio might have smiled. 


  1. I should say, seriously in response to Phil's implicit question, that the hour I lost was epiphenal, ineffable. Nothing like that has quite happened to me since, or happened before that day, in 1993 . That said, I get what I would describe as mini-numinousities when I get lost in Phil's work. this is not to say that he's a correspondingly lesser artist than Caravaggio.Not at all. Maybe I'm only mapped out for one big N in my lifetime. I almost, but not quite, became a Catholic as a result of it. But I didn't; I like to keep my spiritual options permanently open. Just in case!

  2. I've never had a 'big N' in relation to art, but I've had it with music. Art puzzles me and sometimes it hurts my head but it's never engendered a mystical experience. Music lifts me right out of my shoes and I lose my boundaries as I become a part of it. Happiness doesn't enter into it. It makes me think that instead of marking essays today because 'there's nothing else for it' I should perhaps revisit my music collection - and tell the students that Phil told me to!!
    Lovely start to your blog, Rangatira ma. I'll be your groupie :)

  3. Having read this blog post, my dear friend and buddhist scholar, Graham Lever, shared some interesting things with me about the numinous and Caravaggio:

    'It (The Numinous) has many expressions:

    One of the best literary expressions of it is in the Chapter called The Piper at the Gates of Dawn in The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. Looking for a lost baby otter, the three little animals encounter it at the feet of the great God Pan. (The sound of Pan's flute recalled from a dream experience, significantly). Struck dumb and trembling by the awe of being loved, they can barely look upon Pan, its source. And it's all over in a breath: (numen, breath, numinous). Pan is gone. The baby otter remains.

    If this sort of experience is what my fellow Buddhists mean when they talk of 'happiness' and 'bliss', I'll forgive them for losing something in the translation. Otherwise I want to reach for my elephant-gun. It's not about putting happiness and bliss into your life. It's about developing awareness. The process of doing that is neither easy nor comfortable. The result is neither a goal, nor a commodity.

    Word got around that a Zen Master had become enlightened. His students ran to him and asked "How do you feel, now you're enlightened, Master?" "As miserable as ever!", came the reply.

    Caravaggio. An artist worthy of study: homosexual and criminal, who made divine images of his homosexual and criminal friends. Outcasts all; divinely portrayed. He found the divine that lies within the least of us. Wish I could!'


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