The Static Movement of Love and Beauty

STATIC MOVEMENT SOUNDS LIKE A CONTRADICTION so how can it work? James Joyce writes that

… the tragic emotion is static. Or rather the dramatic emotion is. The feelings excited by improper art are kinetic, desire or loathing. Desire urges us to possess, to go to something; loathing urges us to abandon, to go from something. These are kinetic emotions. The arts which excite them, pornographical or didactic, are therefore improper arts. The esthetic emotion is therefore static. The mind is arrested and raised above desire and loathing … The desire and loathing excited by improper esthetic means are really unesthetic emotions not only because they are kinetic in character but also because they are not more than physical. Our flesh shrinks from what it dreads and responds to the stimulus of what it desires by a purely reflex action of the nervous system … Beauty expressed by the artist cannot awaken in us an emotion which is kinetic or a sensation which is purely physical. It awakens, or ought to awaken, or induces, or ought to induce, an esthetic stasis, an ideal pity or an ideal terror, a stasis called forth, prolonged and at last dissolved by what I call the rhythm of beauty … Rhythm … is the first formal esthetic relation of part to part in any esthetic whole or of an esthetic whole to its part or parts or of any part to the esthetic whole of which it is a part.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

IT IS CLEAR FROM THIS DESCRIPTION that stasis does not mean inactivity. This stasis is not dead, it is not bereft of movement. On the contrary. There is a pulsating rhythm within the static which dissolves the initial terror, constituted by the relation between the parts in relation to each other and to the whole. The dictionary tells us that stasis equals inaction and that static is the opposite of dynamic, but Joyce’s description is more dialectical. In the static the stillness is only temporary, soon defeated by the inherent rhythm. In a Dutch still-life composition there is still life. On the surface it looks like nothing is happening, but it is not so. There is tension, just as in Heraclitus’ maxim about the bow and the lyre: “Men do not know how what is at variance agrees with itself. It is an attunement of opposite tensions, like that of the bow and the lyre.” When the drawstring is pulled back, just before the release, the bow is completely still and completely tense at the same time.

OR LOOK AT ACTOR HARRY DEAN STANTON’S FAMOUS FACE. Even if there is no movement, no clearly defined expression, it is full of life. More so than if he had grimaced and “made faces”. The life of a person can in the same manner be still on the surface but full of life within, just as the desperate attempt to create drama or to constantly be engaged in things can reveal an emptiness that has to be disguised by outward gestures. Drama created in order to make something happen is not the same as Joyce’s “dramatic emotion”, which is a still one. The action we create to release ourselves from boredom is physical, it is kinetic, a move towards something desirable, towards the pornographic. At the same time it moves away from what is not desirable, from the didactic and boring. And there is no beauty in it, as well as no love.

JOYCE ALSO EQUALS BEAUTY WITH TRUTH as Plato did, and concludes that truth is also static. Since beauty and love are conflated in Plato, it is not unreasonable, then, to think that love is also static. Not static in the sense that it is inactive, lethargic, disinterested. On the contrary, dynamic, dramatic, terrific (in both senses: extremely good and causing terror). But free from attachment. As Harry Dean Stanton says in the clip above, “That’s love, when you’re not attached, that’s real love”. This is hard to grasp. It is counterintuitive. We are so accustomed to seeing love as attachment and desire. But desire is a movement towards the desirable in order to possess it, not for its own sake but because I want it, an egotistic movement. The desire is not satisfied with letting me love the object for its beauty or because it is worthy of love, it wants more. It wants to have it, to use it, to devour it until nothing is left of it, and then it still wants more. The desire cannot be satiated. This kind of love is never satisfied, it never has enough. And this, funnily enough, we call real love.

THE AUTHOR STEVE SEM-SANDBERG expresses an idea similar to Joyce’s when he writes that …

… love presupposes that someone comes within our reach that we can at the same time never reach, or even clearly discern. And we have to know that the goal is unattainable: that no matter what we do, the beloved still cannot be won. Only then is the true desire awakened. Not only the desire which the opposite sex naturally arouses, but the desire in and through which the whole self trembles, floods, and finally gets to know itself.

The Ocean

HERE HE SPEAKS ABOUT DESIRE, which Joyce sorts under the improper, kinetic arts. But it is another, more complex kind of desire. “True desire” Sem-Sandberg calls it, when it is returning to the self, making it tremble, enabling a self-knowing stemming from the realisation that the desired object is ultimately unattainable. In that moment, to hold the desire, knowing that it has to be contained, not projected outwards, flooding the self in pure acceptance of this state of being. This is what he calls love: the awareness of its magnitude. An unfulfillment not borne out of disappointment but out of a realisation of the impossibility of a single human to contain it in all its greatness. Devoid of the movement towards the object, at the same time full of desire, it is a detachment which makes it possible to behold without having a need to possess or control, to liberate both the self and the beloved.

IF WE ARE CONDITIONED to believe that love or beauty has to be all-consuming in its move towards its object, the detached kind can easily feel deficient, lacking something, being cold. The urge to move towards is strong, but the movement will always leave us unsatisfied, we will never have enough, so we fool ourselves into believing that we have to move even closer, to try even more, which only leaves us more disappointed. Or we just cool down and reconcile with the idea that a mellow, unexciting connection is good enough. Contrariwise, the static movement can give an immense feeling of being consumed rather than consuming. When we let go we surrender to the impossibility of fulfilment rather than greedily wanting to have it, without at the same time giving it up. This is truly terrific: causing a sense of tremendous wonder at the same time as a terrifying realisation that nothing can ever be ours.

IN THE ISLAMIC TRADITION, the Devil was not cast down from Heaven because he rebelled against God but because he loved God too much. God created Man and then demanded that Satan love Man. Satan, however, was devastated. He could only love God and pleaded with him not to have to love anyone else. He could not bear the thought of having to remove himself from his beloved, even for a moment, and his punishment was to be removed forever. That is a profound definition of hell: to be shunned by the one you love. The difference between God and Satan is that Satan’s love was improper: he desired God as an object, he wanted to be near, to have and to hold, his love was of the kinetic kind. He could not detach and had to be detached by force. Literally told to go to hell. The movement towards has to be countered with a movement against.

ALFRED HUANG WRITES in his interpretation of the I Ching:

To the Chinese, when Heaven and Earth associate with each other in balance, it is Tai, Advance. Contrarily, when Heaven and Earth are moving in opposite directions, in a state of imbalance, it is Pi, Hindrance. Thus, Advance brings prosperity, and Hindrance leads to misfortune. The wisdom of the I Ching shows that when things proceed to their proper limit, they alternate to the reverse condition.

The Complete I Ching

THE ADVANCE MOVEMENT CANNOT CONTINUE FOREVER, it has to stop, and then reverse. It shows the impossibility to be continuously happy in an advancement of desire. The desire fulfilled will first lead to indifference, then a feeling of emptiness and loss. Desire fulfilled is nothing more than a turning point where the only way is towards vacuity. At the same time, complete emptiness will also turn on itself and lead to an increase in fullness. These exhausting swings back and forth, moving towards and away from, is one type of life, of course. The static one is another. Not to get lost in the movement, not to be a plaything for emotions, whether good or bad. This does not mean inaction or lack of life, or even no emotions. It is a life which is still, but pulsating with a constant, circular rhythm. The current situation cannot last forever. The sense of fulfilment will not continue and emptiness will ensue. But when a situation has ended there is a new beginning. That the fullness wanes away does not mean that a stage of complete dearth necessarily has to follow. The cycle has run its course but a new one begins, which will lead to a new fullness. Not the same one and not in the same way, but perhaps similar, possibly deeper, more profound. It repeats but it evolves. It goes in circles but it spirals to deeper and deeper – or higher and higher – levels.

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