Day 27: Tuesday
Good morning Zak,
Sometimes when you’re eating a sandwich some of the crumbs will go down your wind-pipe, and you’ll start coughing. In a situation like that, many people’s first instinct is to reach for a glass of water to wash it down. This usually can help reduce the irritation, but it also becomes a bit of a habit. Eat, cough, drink. This is fine, except for when it’s water that you’re choking on in the first place. Probably the worst thing to do when you’re choking on water is to drink more water, but we do it anyway.
There was a time in ancient Rome when they banned public displays of grief. During the second punic war, too many wives and mothers were losing their husbands and sons, and the government decided they had to do something about the constant grief fest going on in the streets. It was disheartening to the troops. So they banned it.
Roman funeral rites were very different from the way we express grief in most of the modern West. At an ancient Roman or Greek funeral, the women of the family would lead the whole community in a dramatic public display of mourning. They would wail and tear their clothes and their hair and throw dirt on their heads… It would have been a very distressing scene. I understand they still do these sorts of things in certain parts of the world. In parts of southern Italy, for example.
I saw this one person walking alone down an empty street in Bergamo.
People have all sorts of ways to express grief—really, to express any emotion. In modern American society, we don’t really have a unified language of expression. If you ran out of the church after a funeral service and started scooping up soil from the flower bed to dump it on your head, most people watching probably wouldn’t understand what you were doing. If any of those bystanders happened to be ancient Romans, I guess it would be different.
But banning a form of expression is like trying to stop choking on water by drinking more water. There is no right or wrong way to express the human experience. In the middle of a free improvisation, I once saw a composer start banging his head on the inside of the piano and shaking his hair over the strings to make them vibrate. The ultimate objective of art is authenticity. If you are at a stage in life where the most authentic form of expression is making farting noises into a microphone, then that’s wonderful.
The word “expressionism” comes from the Latin ex-premere, ex meaning “outward” and premere meaning “to press.” Maybe it was with the intention of pressing outward and externalizing the human experience that an ancient Hebrew poet once wrote “my bile is poured out because of the destruction of the daughter of my people” (Lamentations 2:11).
Another trend in contemporary art is called impressionism, “pressing inward.” Ancient Hebrew tradition is equally rich with examples of this: “it is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord” (ibid. 3:26). Maybe Socrates—the first “Platonic” philosopher—was being an impressionist when he went stolidly to his execution, as recounted in Plato’s Phaedo.
In the visual arts, people find all sorts ways of making impressions and expressions. But it always has something to do with the arrangement of light and the opposition of darkness with light.The Gospel of John in the Christian Bible is said to show a heavy influence from Platonic philosophy. I think it also gives us good insight regarding the visual arts:
“The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it” (1:5).