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Words From The Woods

Emptiness

Before we came to live here in the woods, we lived in many places and furnished many rooms, and we always had art on our walls. We chose our art carefully to add to the meaning and beauty of our rooms.

But from the moment we moved into Innermost House we have had no art of any kind. Our great love of the fine arts had given way by degrees over many years to a deep feeling for the useful arts, especially where those arts have their roots in real necessity. Part of what brought us to an Innermost Life was a need to root ourselves in a way of living that lay beneath the level of fine art, and inward of it.

We had come to love and to seek out those things that must be, in preference to things that only may be. We were still guided by a love of beauty, but it was a different kind of beauty. It was more a love of what Emerson means when he speaks of "building altars to Beautiful Necessity."

So the art we had once enjoyed fell away, and was replaced by a beautiful emptiness— itself a kind of necessity that more and more people feel today as the world fills up with things no one really needs.

Visitors to Innermost House have often remarked that it is itself like a work of art. One guest said that being there felt like being inside a jewelry box. Another said the quality of the light reminded him of a Vermeer painting. A European guest compared it to the archaic bust of Apollo in that wonderful Rilke poem—

Else would this stone be standing maimed and short

under the shoulders' translucent plunge

nor flimmering like the fell of beasts of prey

nor breaking out of all its contours

like a star: for there is no place

that does not see you. You must change your life.

Living in Innermost House is a little like living inside a painting of a poem, or inside a poem about a painting. There isn't much room left over for more art!

But after four years of living here without fine art, we found that we longed for something more in our emptiness— a still more intensified emptiness. We began to feel we might seek a way of giving artistic form to the emptiness we love. It’s as if we had to empty ourselves of everything but necessity, and live with nothing for a long while, in order to clear a place for a new relationship with art to grow. Without knowing it we were waiting for a way to be able to need fine art again, in the way of those long-ago people who first created it.

In this past year we have begun to hang scroll paintings in the house, but only one at a time, and only for one or two evenings a week. This is Michael’s doing. He has the very deepest feeling for art, and is a natural artist and designer. He feels that the true spirit— the spiritual essence— of emptiness has never been more profoundly or perfectly expressed than in the ancient pictures of the poet-painters of the Chinese Song Dynasty. Of course these thousand-year-old masterpieces are impossible to own. Very few Chinese have ever even seen them.

The great beauty and significance of these paintings has always been recognized, and over the centuries many found their way into the Imperial collections in the Forbidden City in Beijing. When it appeared those collections might be endangered by the wars of the last century, they were secreted away for thirty years and finally removed to Taipei, where the National Palace Museum was built to house them.

The collection includes paintings so rare and fragile that they are now stored in vaults and displayed for only forty days once every three years. The Chinese government recognized the need to preserve their ancient and decaying masterpieces for posterity, and commissioned a distinguished Japanese art publisher to reproduce them in perfect facsimile right down to the paper grounds and fine silk mountings.

These facsimile paintings now tour museums throughout China so the Chinese people can at last see their own greatest artworks. These are the artworks that we now hang in Innermost House. They are our only works of fine art.

The paintings have an almost unearthly beauty. I once read of Shakespeare that he wrote as if everything in the world might be expressed in words. These ancient Chinese artists painted as if nothingness itself might be expressed in images. The mountains themselves seem to melt away into the spiritual atmosphere. We have a "river-and-mountain" painting by an ancient monk named Chu-jan in which you can almost feel the ache of Buddhist longing to be absorbed into the selfless elements—

Autumn color so full of moving beauty:

It's fuller still in this lakeside idleness.

Below western forest, distances vast, we

see ourselves in mountains at the gate:

darkness bleeds across a thousand miles,

scattered peaks breaking through cloud,

and ridgelines scrawl across Ch’in lands,

Or bunch up, hiding Thorn-bramble Pass.

Amid remnant rain, slant light’s radiant.

Birds take flight, return to evening mist.

Same as ever. Nothing much changed, old

friend. Why grieve over a timeworn face?

We unroll it only for a night, then put it away. How I love to gaze on these delicate, ethereal works by mountain monks and artist-emperors of a thousand years ago!

When again the feeling for a deeper emptiness comes upon us we unroll another scroll, perhaps a painting of two songbirds on a wild plum tree branch, or of insects in tall grasses. A night or two and then away it goes again— though not necessarily for three years!

In this way art does not become a piece of decoration— a hardly-noticed object to fill an empty space. It remains instead like a moving story or a tragic play— but wordless and silent— a vivid experience of beauty and depth and meaning.

We hang the scroll over our wall of books opposite the fire for evening tea; it seems to give silent voice to the upward longing of the black night and the clear white steam rising in the candlelight. Then we put it away so that it can remain for us a Beautiful Necessity, an enlightening emptiness.

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The first poem from which Diana quotes here is by the Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926). He wrote in French and German and is considered one of the most important poets in the German language. Like his contemporary, the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, he wrote of the deep dislocation between modern mass culture and the spiritual dimension of individual life. He is best-known for his poetical work, the Duino Elegies, and for his Letters to a Young Poet, both of which Diana has read and enjoyed.

The famous poem quoted here, "On An Archaic Bust Of Apollo," is in the little known but striking translation by M. D. Herter Norton.

The second poem is by the early poet-painter of the Chinese Tang Dynasty, Wang Wei (699-759). Of his paintings it was said that every one contained a poem, and of his poems that each painted a picture. He was famous in his lifetime as a statesman and a Buddhist monk as well as a poet and painter, and he is remembered as the "Poet-Buddha"— one of the three greatest poets of China's long poetic tradition.

The translation quoted is from David Hinton's The Selected Poems of Wang Wei. Diana and Michael enjoy Hinton's translations from the Chinese, along with those of Burton Watson and the earlier Arthur Waley.

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