Friday, March 30, 2012

Things in My Cabinet: The Janus of Joy

Have Faith in the Color Blue
(microcollage amulet, 2011)
It is a breezy morning alive with sunshine, and so of course I am thinking about joy. I say of course because the word joy, when I hold it in my heart, is full of light and lively sky, shaking watery aquamarine like a white-walled Mediterranean pool of cobalt tile and glass and then the russet and gold of the bed of a stream through the redwoods and then tumbling into nothing to do but dance bare feet deep in the grass, yes that's joy, the bright drench of the air when it's too full to stay its edges and just spills on over into everything.

And here is something that walks a fine line between joy and the numinous: an amulet I made for a friend of mine who love tiny things as much as I do. So, okay. I've spoken about the numinous before, and how important it is to me. But I've never really put it side by side, exactly, with my concept of joy. How does the numinous fit into my desire to build a museum about joy? To ignore it, after all, is to ignore a side of existence that is not exactly dark, perhaps, but one where joy is not the primary principle. Will I rule out anything that's not full of laughter and happiness and glee and risk a two-dimensional portrait of the things that swell our hearts, or is there room for a shadow side in the daydreams of someday's miraculous collections?

Now, amulets for me fall generally into the category of the numinous because they are potent magical objects, first by the grace of their materials (etched glass, intricate silverwork, carved bone, polished stone...all share the virtue of being small, solid lumps of durable matter made mystical by the addition of some special, careful, intentional work by human will always be hard to feel amulaic properties in any mass-produced object; craft - not necessarily art - seems to matter here) and secondly due to the sense of worlds-contained-in-the-palm-of-the-hand that they seem to carry with them. Amulets are often in the shapes of animals or parts of the body, and this shrinkage, this miniaturization, has a fiercely and decidedly magical sense to it -- small things often seem to be packed more densely with the stuff of existence, as if all the vividness a living elephant contained stayed with it as it shrank down into the ivory charm, so that something just one inch tall still seems to swagger with a whole savannah. (This seems to hold true only to a certain size. Beyond a satisfyingly graspable smallness, miniatures pass out of the realm of the amulaic and into the realm of the merely curious. Microminiatures -- statues in the eye of a needle, say -- are astonishing, but not sacred.)

So these flowery amulets have that property, certainly; I love the bright hothouse lands within them, the complex, intensified, distilled worlds. In them, each element being so carefully chosen, there might be that paradise I claim that numinousness is nostalgia for. But they also make me feel joyful, and joyfulness to my mind is very different than numinousness, and in fact I almost never think of them side by side; it is only in having made these amulets, this week, that it occurred to me that I have never really tried to see how these two quite distinct and phenomenally important feelings of mine fit together. I think I would like to explore this for the first time now. Okay: so what's the joyful element within them? One part is the act of joy in making them, absolutely, the deep, abiding, harmonious pleasure and satisfaction of seeing something minute and lovely emerge under my hands. And one part is just how beautiful they are, little drops of loveliness added to the world, the sense of having created something that is good to look upon and makes the soul expand a little outwards. That lights up at least one important difference between joy and the numinous right away: joy is an outward feeling, a feeling of sharing something. The numinous is an inward feeling. It comes with a sense of secrecy, of the hidden.

(Look, you might ask here: why are you even bothering to compare these feelings? Clearly they're different; okay, so let them be different, what's the big deal? Let me clarify: the reason I want to explore them side by side is because they share a language in my soul, a language full of words like honey and rain and glass, and because my sense of meaning and beauty at the heart of the universe comes -- I am pretty sure of this -- from getting to feel these two feelings. Usually I feel them at different times; sometimes -- in Venice when I was 18, for example -- I think they are the same feeling. I don't know why I have never wondered until now what's going on here. But I am always interested in trying to give voice to things felt deeply for which we have almost no language. So this is a rumination in the service of poetic clarity.)

Alleyway, Sintra, Portugal (Louis Yannucci)
Here, for example, this image. Joyful or numinous? Alleyways for me fall into the numinous: mystery, possibility, things around corners, the sense of the hidden or the forbidden beckoning; the alchemist's guild that might meet there, the secret masquerade ball, the talisman someone dropped that is a key to the labyrinth you have not yet entered, maybe a door into an older, stranger world. But those warm red edges to the windows, such sweet yellow and blue light, the vivid green leaves -- those are joyful things, eliciting in me a rush and a surge of delight. There might simply be a table laid beyond those steps, with good tomatoes and red wine and someone I love and a glimpse of the sea, the sky cloudless high above through the thin pale slice of the tall stones. (Borges is a poet of the numinous; Neruda, a poet of joy.) What is the relation of these feelings? A kind of a Janus: one faced turned outwards with gladness towards what is, the other turned inwards with longing towards what might be.

If I stand by my earlier agreement with Mircea Eliade about the numinous as nostalgia for Paradise, perhaps joy might be characterized by a sense that Paradise was never lost at all, that we are here in it right now...! Joy is the clarity we breathe when all the world feels akin to us, all close and full of laughter. And aha! that leads me to notice:  for me, at least, I think of joy as tending towards things already alive (redwoods, flowing water, fresh strawberries warm from the sun, tangled bodies, spring rain), whereas the numinous feels like a kind of alchemy by which dead matter becomes animate, is given a soul (alleyways beckoning, amulets inviting, doors and dark streets suddenly holding breath and potency in their silence...) Maybe that's it: if Paradise is everything alive and full of meaning, well then joy is the celebration of just that, the dance that bows to the things already breathing! And that sense of longing inherent for me in the numinous -- well, I think it's the yearning to sense the same kind of mystery and potency in things made of brick and stone that I feel in trees, in my hands in the earth, in my feet slipped down into water. I am sure it is there -- otherwise I would never be so full of dream cities and mystic cabinets and holy books; I would worship Nature only, and not astrolabes and alphabets as well as almond trees and the color of the sky at dusk...

Yes -- I think that's right. There will always be a sense of loss in numinous things for me, beautiful and melancholy, because the inwardness of the numinous feeling comes from the knowledge that the life of most things is hidden, masked, and only by looking with my best mystical squint will I be allowed to see it. And joy feels so fresh and easy because it comes from things that are alive through and through, unmasked, bare-footed. The creative act feels joyful because it is a pulling of things from the realm of the hidden into the shared realm, the living world of daylight; it builds a doorway to a place that lives only inside me, which is to say: it is a glimpse of what might lie at the bottom of the steps.


  1. I’m just dropping by to say hello! I look forward to seeing the alphabet all over your blog in April!

    For the challenge we ask that you please take down Word Verification. We would like to make commenting as easy as possible for all participants in the challenge.

    Konstanz Silverbow
    A to Z Co-host

  2. hi Konstanz,

    Thanks for saying hi! I'll be disabling Wprd Verification for sure, thanks for the tip :)


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