The Transitory Immediate: First Five Observations about the Moment
Cape Cod Afternoon, Edward Hopper, 1936
by Ed Simon
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
—Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ, “God’s Grandeur” (1877)
I. Keter; or, Crown
Eugene Smith couldn’t have known that when he accepted a commission in 1955 from the Hungarian essayist Stefan Laurent to take the photographs for the latter’s book about Pittsburgh that it would turn into the greatest pictorial compendium of a single city ever produced. Smith was an exacting technician; Wichita-born and New York-based, and already famous among photojournalists for his portfolio, past series having focused on everything from Iwo Jima to the travails of a country doctor in Colorado.
When Laurent tasked the younger man to fill Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City with images, the contract only required a month of work and a promise of a hundred pictures. Smith’s assignment would ultimately extend until 1958 and would result in over 17,000 usable photos. In a review at Harper’s, Vince Passaro would explain that Smith “was mesmerized by Pittsburgh — its machinery, its soot, its fire, and its life.” With her blast furnaces staining the night sky a cosmic orange, her rivers ringed with the gray sand of the slag heap, and the Bessemer convertors turning metal into liquid red and back again, the photojournalist at the height of his own talent confronted the ultimate industrial American city at the height of its own power. John Berger, the Marxist art critic, explained that for Smith, “Pittsburgh represented the human condition at that time. Far more than a city, it was life on this earth. This is why the project grew so uncontrollably.”
Laurent and Smith would come to disagree over the direction of the project; the famously pugnacious Smith had already alienated editors at Newsweek and Life, having frequently sacrificed deadlines in pursuit of perfection. Jeremy Lybarger, writing at Belt Magazine, explains that “From the beginning, Smith understood his Pittsburgh assignment as a way to redeem himself spiritually and artistically;” for the photographer, this was no mere three-week gig to fill a coffee table book in honor of the city’s bicentennial full of pat civic boosterism–photos of steel mills, department stores and ethnic churches. For Smith, the task was far more sacred: it was to record every shattering moment of profane transcendence within the material world of a specific place at a specific time.
Applying for a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1956, Smith explained that his vocation was to capture “photographic insight into the always transitory immediate” of existence, with the “eloquence of vistas… and by the details of many fragments.” In exploring how though “blighted”, there was also a “sensual beauty” to Pittsburgh, that such as when “seen from high, looking along the buildings and up the river to the moon which has just become fully stated above the horizon.” He hoped that he wouldn’t just “transmit a sense of the city’s character,” but that he would fully plumb “the spirit and the spiritual.” Only a small number of Smith’s pictures, of steel mills and cathedrals, grime faced workers and brick row houses, would ultimately be included in Laurent’s final book. Life magazine would offer the photographer $10,000 for a series based on the project, which he turned down since he couldn’t exact complete creative control.
It is easy to assume that Smith was simply a control freak, and yet his Pittsburgh corpus was perhaps the closest photography has ever come to James Joyce’s Ulysses; fulfilling the aesthetic charge that Passaro describes as a unifying principle of human sympathy combined with a “rare and difficult, almost destructive intensity – starkly expressive, forever unflinching, and never forgetful of the beauty of the visible world.” For what Smith’s photographs captured, in all their grubby sublimity, their rough-hewn poetry of slag and pig-iron, was the immanence and transcendence inherent within the crystalline moment.
Examine his most iconic photograph, of a mustachioed, sooty, chin-dimpled steel worker, whose helmet rings his head like a halo, the mill behind him a dark smear against the white infinity of an undetermined sky, and whose abstraction of form is such that it might as well be a cathedral. Central to the viewer is the gaze of the worker himself, for he wears thick industrial protective goggles, and reflected back to us is his perspective, two massive jets of molten fire as if our direction towards which he stares was a view of hell itself.
II. Chokmah; or, Wisdom
Photography is particularly obvious in capturing the immanence and transcendence inherent within the crystalline moment, but all arts, whether visual, plastic, literary, dramatic, or musical are defined as such precisely because the crystalline moment is what they trade in.
What exactly is the crystalline moment? Look at Smith’s portrait of the steelworker again, appearing as nothing so much as a variety of icon, this saint’s face as stylized and abstracted as any of the niches in a Byzantine church, such as those in St. John Chrysostom in the Run, where men just like him worshiped for generations (perhaps this worker himself).
Now, what exactly was this scene like for the men who worked in that mill? Surely, every day, men just like the one in Smith’s photograph affixed bulky goggles to their heads and perspired in front of the Bessemer. In and of itself, there would be nothing miraculous about this, save for all of existence being miraculous; there would be nothing sanctified about this, except that all of reality is sanctified. The task of the artist – be they photographer, poet, painter, or novelist – is to capture precise moments in such a way that the inherent immanence and transcendence of all moments is made manifest to us. They serve to make it clear that all moments are miraculous and sanctified. An artist has the responsibility to defamiliarize the familiar; it is the responsibility, as someone once said, to cleanse the doors of perception.
Before Smith could capture his angel in ribbon, this was perhaps a moment as any other in that infinite sequence of moments–mundane, prosaic, profane. But by preserving it as a crystalline moment, as one narrative second taken out of the sequence of time and recorded, what is reflected back is the possibility that all moments in their infinitude and exactitude might be bottled as lightning in a jar. Every experiential instance of human existence, of human perspective, of human sentiment and feeling is as if a cracked reliquary filled with overflowing glow, and each moment has the potential to be made crystalline.
Look around at where you are, and examine your surroundings: the texture, warp and weft of a gnarled wooden table, punctuated with brown oak lines and knots; or perhaps the chipped orange plastic of the seats on the A train, some smeared with white gum grown tacky with stick and studded with the city’s dust; or maybe the granite sturdiness of the New York Public Library’s steps, the accumulated traffic of millions in front of you on Fifth Avenue, veritable cosmoses unto themselves, an infinity of universes each defined by their own limitless, overabundant, flowing crystalline moments. Every instance is an opportunity for reflection, every moment a portal through which the sacred may enter; the artist of whatever inclination is defined by their preservation, manipulation, and organization of those moments. Poetry, painting, photography, sculpture, prose, music, drama, and so on, are defined as such, and not as something else, neither by subject, technique, or proficiency, but by the presence of crystalline moments.
Crystalline moments vary in intensity, in detail, in their concern with either immanence or transcendence, but they are the elementary particles of art. As atoms are to matter, so is the crystalline moment to expression. The capture of the “immediate transitory,” as Smith put it to the Guggenheim. Most successful expressions of the crystalline moment share the effect of having observed and recorded some of the limitless overflowing of detail which constitutes every blessed second. Photography, again, expresses the concept well; if at least that its very terminology is so congruent with the concept. Even if novels are collections of crystalline moments organized together, or lyric poems are visual descriptions as carved in ivory, the vocabulary which speaks of “the shot” expresses such a theory of aesthetics with particular adeptness.
An expression of that photographic ethos is literalized in the name of a contemporary of Smith who was also working in Pittsburgh. Charles “Teenie” Harris, a photojournalist for the city’s preeminent national black newspaper The Courier, who was often called “One Shot” by admirers and the envious alike, for his preternatural ability to perfectly capture the crystalline moment. Art historian Allan Trachtenberg explains that photographers like Smith exulted Pittsburgh as a “rough, tough, hard-working city of few amenities and pleasures,” and yet Harris’ beat was in the historically black neighborhood of the Hill District, focused around the corner of Wylie and Center Avenues, a little Harlem lined with jazz clubs which has led historian Mark Whitaker to argue that the Hill of Harris’ day was site of the other “great Black Renaissance.” As captured by Harris’ shutter, the Hill was a place of neon luminescence, smoke-filled clubs and an ever-present thrum of nocturnal energy. Where the moments captured by Smith are cold, abstract and impersonal, Harris was a recorder of the particular, the detailed, the personal. Smith was a poet of transcendence and Harris of immanence, the two poles of the crystalline moment.
Examine the symmetry, the luminescence, the sheer electric glow of Harris’ intimate picture of the New York born saxophonist Benny Carter on a scuffed wooden stage, perhaps at the Crawford Grill which sponsored the Negro League baseball team that Harris himself had once played for. Carter, in gray flannel suit and black tie with broken loafers crouches low to the edge of the stage, where he grasps the hands of a pretty young woman in the audience, surrounded by a crowd of listeners who’ve attended his concert. The woman’s face is overjoyed, ecstatic, and Carter looks into her eyes with an almost paternal admiration. There is a distinctiveness to the people crowded towards the front of the stage, hoping to reflect that warm afterglow and aura of the performance complete. Behind the woman’s left shoulder, a gentleman in a fedora laughs, his eyes shut. Behind her right an almost absurdly cool young man, porkpie hat and tinted shades. Ringing the back of the establishment are the white customers of the club, some of whom surely were not used to being bit players in any part of the American story.
The overall feel of the shot, with its black-and-white shading reminiscent of the striking chiaroscuro of a Caravaggio, is precisely that of a Renaissance or Baroque masterpiece. Carter’s benediction to the girl in the front row is as if God blessing Adam, for Harris’ improvisational shot is both art and reflection on art. If Smith’s remote, alien, foreign steelworker with his eyes of fire concerns the radical other of transcendence, then the warmth of Harris’ one shot with its sense of the concrete details of life is one of immanence, for the latter’s art is an exploration of the permeated luminescence of our reality.
Both are expressions of the crystalline moment, for they have selected particular instances within lived time that are to be preserved, and literally every day, hour, minute and second is filled with divinity that can be recorded in varying degrees of complexity. Certainly, Carter had kneeled to shake the hand of a pretty girl many times, and every day there are instances of perfection which fleet with transitory immediacy before our very eyes, but of that infinite variety of glory and blessedness we have this particular one saved for our meditation. French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty claimed that “True philosophy consists in re-learning to look at the world,” but how much more accurate is that of art itself? For in the goggles of the steelworker and the adoring gaze of the jazz fan we as the audience have re-learned how to look at the world again. In defamiliarizing the regular, existence can be made visceral again, whether through the concrete or the abstract, permanence or permeation. As regards the later concerns, Smith explored transcendence and Harris immanence, but both were conversant with divinity, as they should be.
III. Binah; or, Understanding
The Charles “Teenie” Harris archive is kept at the Carnegie Museum of Art. Located right on Forbes Avenue with its bus exhaust and traffic, the 80,000 photographs of Harris are held behind the museum’s granite, marble, and copper neo-classical façade, as guarded by statues of Shakespeare, Bach, Galileo and Michelangelo (symbolic of their respective arts and sciences) with a ring of muses circling them from the roof of the complex. Inside of the museum there are the white-walled, light dappled Scaife Galleries, where in one of the rooms as dedicated to 20th Century American painting a visitor can find one of painter Edward Hopper’s lesser known canvases, Cape Cod Afternoon. If known for anything, Hopper is the great bottler of American loneliness, famed for his depictions of empty spaces, of Philadelphia row houses at dawn and Greenwich Village diners at night. Cape Cod Afternoon conveys the same emotional charge as Hopper’s more celebrated paintings, with the artist depicting two homes on the peninsula, appropriately enough a darker house in the architecturally style named after Cape Cod itself, and the other a similar gabled, white wooden New England beach house.
Hopper paints the slopping, grassy hill in front of the homes a shade of green that is greener than anything in nature, and thus more truthful, as he does with the blue of the lightly cloudy sky as well. His green varies, as it does in the actual experience of greenness for anyone espying a lawn in Cape Cod, or anywhere else for that matter. Shadows of the homes are long, and though the title informs us that the sun must be moving towards the west, it seems a day grown shorter than those long New England hours about the solstice, suggesting that this is perhaps later in August, or during the false respite of an Indian summer.
The painting is if anything an examination of what Emily Dickinson called “a certain slant of light,” for the scene is a masterpiece of understanding how color and luminescence are experienced. Hopper’s paintings are sometimes described as “melancholic”–this is accurate. The source of that melancholia is the heaviness of his light, because the differentiation between the shades of green and the obfuscating shadows conveys something difficult to fully put into words, but immediately recognizable. Rendered with a type of abstraction that deceives you into the illusion of concreteness, Hopper’s Cape Cod Afternoon is Cape Cod as rendered completely in Platonic forms.
As with Harris’ photograph of Carter, Hopper has captured the pure, unadulterated crystalline moment. Life experienced narratively, which is to say the only way actual life can be experienced, continually deletes the immediacy of the transitory, but in depicting the specifically of the second within the crystalline moment artists reendow the present with meaning. A second before Carter kneeled down towards his fan and a second after have universes of difference from what Harris captured; just as the movement of the sun and of clouds would radically alter the image as rendered by Hopper. Central to the aesthetic theory of the crystalline moment is the sanctity and sovereignty of the instance, of the event. Narrative theorists have been invaluable in explaining the central role of plot and story, and arguably even the most abstract of art is implicated within the contours of narrative. Narrative theorists Eugene Dorfman and Henri Wittmann defined what they called the “narreme” as the fundamental unit of narrative, and as a concept it is not dissimilar to what I mean by the crystalline moment.
Similar as well is the Russian philosopher and linguist Mikhail Bakhtin’s “chronotope,” which he described as the “intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature.” Bakhtin’s concept was specifically a spatio-temporal one, and indeed he made comparison to Einsteinian relativity, seeing the configuration of how time relates to space in any given literary text as having genre significance. He writes that “the literary artistic chronotope, spatial and temporal indicators are fused into one carefully thought-out, concrete whole,” and in some sense the reasoning bolstering the crystalline moment is similarly spatio-temporal, insomuch as a string of crystalline moments may define the narrative arts. But ultimately, the crystalline moment can stand alone, as it does for Smith, Harris or Hopper. Novels, epics, film may all be structured with crystalline moments in sequence, but what all share as art is that they have at least one crystalline moment. Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park has many crystalline moments and Cape Cod Morning the one, but that’s of no accounting. It is the presence of any crystalline moment that distinguishes art of whatever type as such. Sequences of such moments are of course fascinating, but solitary instances are no less legitimate, and they’re our concern for these particular observations.
IV. Chesed; or, Kindness
In the gallery right next to the one that contains the Hopper painting, you can find a resolutely traditional still life by the Pittsburgh-born, German-Catholic 19th and 20th Century painter Albert Francis King. The still life is an exceedingly odd artistic genre, embodying unobvious ideologies and even less obvious metaphysics. While most people can appreciate the sheer technical ability in accurately depicting an assemblage of produce and fowl, shells and artefacts in artfully-arranged tableaux, the still life can be spoken of as a fundamentally unserious subject for the painter, a kind of Renaissance Thomas Kincaid of all light and no heat. For my straw-critic, the still life might be an important aspect of art history, the flowers of Hans Memling and the melons of Juan Sánchez Cotán, but neither of these are the progenitors of a fundamentally serious, non-representational art ruling ascendant in the 20th Century; more accurate to think of those archaic prints of heaped veal cutlets, cut pears, and bushels of purple grapes as the great-grandparent of commercial catalog photography.
Late Night Snack, Albert Francis King, c.1900
Yet the assumption that the still life is simply conservative aesthetic peacocking is unfounded and unfair. While the great examples of the Dutch Renaissance certainly demonstrate the artistic talent of their creators, seemingly a simple exhibition of aptitude in the dappling of light across glass pitchers, the sinewy texture of wrinkled oranges, the diamond glint of ice underneath a rocky oyster shell, the granite finality of a human skull’s black eye sockets reminding us of vanitas, the form itself contains multitudes that more iconoclastic critics might obscure. Consider King’s painting in the Carnegie, with its prosaically funny title of Late Night Snack.
King presents the painting’s viewer with two bottles of ale (or lager) in those old-fashioned bottles that Grolsch still sells their beer in, with the one on the far left uncapped and a frothy tumbler of the amber liquid condensed in its celestial glow at the edge of the painting. Next to the two bottles of beer (quite the consumption for a single late-night snack, no?) there is a glass dome, with a complete wedge of Jarlsberg or Swiss inside, three biscuits scattered on the surface in front, and a small, ceramic jar of mustard in front of the dome. It’s unclear what surface this meal sits on, there is a reddish tinge to whatever the table may be, but the light beyond the particulars of the still life is an all-encompassing black, the only indication of an outside world beyond this little boozy monad, this self-contained universe in a walnut shell, this atom of pure experience, is the reflection of a cross-hatched window in the sheen of the cheese dome, the light pouring in forcing us to question just how accurate the tile of the painting actually is.
Don’t mistake me, mine is not a fundamentally reactionary claim for the superiority of the concrete over the abstract, of the representational over the iconoclastic. I’m neither interested in, nor do I think the claim is comprehensible, to pretend that it is a fait accompli that Late Night Snack is somehow “better” than Cape Cod Morning because the former is able to so intricately and realistically depict the beads of perspiration on the small glass of beer, the rubbery texture of the cheese, or the little percolated caverns where the Swiss finds their holes–even while acknowledging that for all of its verisimilitude there is a surrealism to these exquisitely rendered things floating in an impossible, dark space. Fundamentally what’s being discussed is never the thing in itself, but rather the experience of the thing, the phenomenology of the thing.
In drawing a contrast between these two very different paintings which sit only a few yards away from each other, I rather hope to explicate a bit of how the crystalline moment operates, for I’ve been bandying about these terms “immanence” and “transcendence” without taking the good faith of actually defining what I mean. In the most literal and basic sense, the first term is a description of concreteness, and the latter is one of abstractness, and as such some might argue that Hopper’s painting exhibits more of a sense of transcendence, while King’s that of immanence. Things are never that simple though, for these are theological terms, and the gloss of the sacred is a connotation of which I intend to keep when using them in criticism. Furthermore, I’d never so clearly or straightforwardly identify any particular artwork, any particular painting, poem, or photograph, as being a more or less transcendent or immanent example of the crystalline moment. So much depends on the context, on so many shifts, where so much is relative.
Immanence and transcendence are thus always intimately intermingled, and difficult to disentangle from one another; what defines the crystalline moment as such is that in some proportion these two concepts are exhibited in all of their multiplicity, and that then the presence of such a crystalline moment is what defines something as being art. With such a perspective, what is being explored is what Emily Dickinson described as “Forever – is composed of Nows.” Art of whatever variety presents a taxonomy of those nows, of the eternal present. Art is the demonstration of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s contention that “eternal life belongs to those who live in the present;” thus art explores sequences in time – it is always this sequence of presents, this composition of nows.
The crystalline moment depicts immanence in all of the varied complexity and detail of the world; it presents, in short, the experience of divinity as imbuing every second and every atom, the exhibition of what Blake sang of when he spoke of the universe being implicit within a grain of sand. Back when I used to drink, there was a sweet spot moment somewhere between the third and fourth beer, when the sheer textual enormity of every instance of experience would reveal itself to you. Life lived with a sort of hyper-mindfulness, as I became intimately aware of, reflective on, and thankful for every swirl in the wood of the bar, the neon hum of the signs on the wall, even the electronic cacophony of frantic TV, reverentially tracing one’s fingers on the Guinness tiles affixed into the wooden surface of a pub on Liberty Ave.
For a few minutes at least, I’d become reverentially aware of everything which the mind normally shuts out so as to keep functioning in the humdrum of necessary life–it was a contemplative ecstasy purchased for the price of its exact opposite, which then dominated the many hours afterwards. That, it should be said, was a rather cheap and dangerous way to acquire what great art is able to worshipfully convey. Such an overabundance of beauty dominates every moment of existence, even in its ugliness, that the pause conveyed within the rendered moment preserved as in amber provides the scaffolding upon which art can be constructed. What is ultimately being presented is the visceral and lived thingness of the very moment.
The partner to immanence is transcendence, for while the former revels in the enchanted glowing of detail within the moment, the latter gestures towards those greater connections which lay beyond the moment. Both are fundamentally mystical, mysterious and unknowable, but where the immanent concerns itself with the immediate almost sensual physicality of the moment, the transcendent gestures towards the beyond, the ultimate, the absolute. Where immanence is concerned with the material physicality of now, transcendence focuses on something in the beyond; immanence is the amber in King’s glass, transcendence the strange shining light on Hopper’s lawn.
Ultimately, and this cannot be repeated enough, immanence and transcendence contradictory though they may seem, are both nestled together in the crystalline moment as surely as Jacob and Esau were in Rebecca’s womb. More appropriate to think of the crystalline moment as a type of monad, that strange ancient Greek concept of that solitary, atomistic, elementary singularity which structured all of reality, floating in its own non-existent space, but encompassing all potential within its shell, shining the greater fullness of existence. The great proponent of the concept, Gottfried Leibnitz, explained it as such in 1714’s The Monadology, writing that at “every present state of a simple substance is… pregnant with its future,” but perhaps even more apropos is his conclusion in that same text that the “soul is the mirror of an indestructible universe,” for what each crystalline moment finally is, is an indestructible universe of sorts, a mirror reflecting back the totally of existence in all of its immanence and transcendence as pregnant in every second.
V. Gevurah; or, Severity
On the first floor of the Carnegie Museum of Art, maybe a five-minute walk from the gallery which contains Late Night Snack, with its mysterious intimations of the absolute, and there is a massive room the exact dimensions of the central hall at the Mausoleum of Herculaneum, which functions as a strangely totalizing monad in its own right. If we think of Leibnitz’s monad as being that singular particle pregnant with all of the past and future reflected outwards, then the Architecture Hall is a manifestation of Hamlet’s desire to “live in a walnut shell and feel like the king of the universe,” or as David Bowie says in the persona of Andy Warhol in the film Basquiat, “we could go to Pittsburgh!… They have this room with all of the world’s famous statues in it, so you don’t even have to go to Europe any more… just go to Pittsburgh.” Better to wrap yourself up in the walls of a Rust Belt museum and declare yourself the variable emperor of all reality.
The Architecture Hall is an example of a strange Gilded Age affectation, whereby the great museums of the world collected massive plaster castes of canonical works of sculpture so that workers unable to afford the benefits of the great tour which was the mainstay of upper-class education could instead take the trolley line a few miles and see the Nike of Samothrace or the Venus de Milo preserved in chipped, white casts. Andrew Carnegie, the industrialist (and for a time, richest man in the world) who funded the institution in its earliest days, was very much an adherent of that boot-strapping American affliction which valorizes a kind of autodidactic education, and rather than allow his workers to unionize he gave them libraries and copies of the Florence Baptistry doors.
Regardless of the ideology motivating such a space, Bowie-as-Warhol was correct that there is a magnificence to seeing all of the great monuments of the world gathered together into some kind of Platonic omni-museum, as if you’d journeyed to some other-dimensional realm that contains all of history. The process of casting was expensive, and damaging to the originals, with most collections being destroyed to make room for new art, but the Carnegie’s assemblage remains the second largest extant, after the Victoria & Albert museum in London. The museum’s website touts “144 architectural casts, 60 plaster reproductions of sculpture, and 360 replicas in bronze,” including an entire caste of the gothic entrance to the cathedral of St.-Giles-du-Gard.
Well of Moses, Claus Sluter, 1395-1406
A little to the left of that triumphant, buttressed, red-arched gothic façade is a reproduction of the Dutch sculptor Claus Sluter’s massive Well of Moses. Sculpted by Sluter at the Carthusian monastery of Champol in Dijon, which housed his workshop; the piece was intended to mark the burial site of the Burgundian duke Philip the Bold. A hexagonal base with each side depicting prophets and figures from the Hebrew scriptures, including Moses, David, Jeremiah, Zachariah, Daniel, and Isiah, each holding a book or a scroll marked with a bit of scripture that medieval Christians believed typologically prefigured the incarnation of Christ, who himself was once depicted upon a massive crucifix which topped the sculpture, and which was later destroyed, possibly after a roof collapse at the monastery, or as the result of an act of iconoclastic fury during the French Revolution.
Moses looks ancient, weary, tired, and somewhat over it. “A bit of poetic justice,” the great emancipator might be thinking, if marble could think, for Sluter’s theology in sculpture demonstrated the medieval dispensationalism that saw Christ as the ultimate culmination of Judaism itself, superseding its parent religion and thus robbing it of its own sacred stories. A certain equilibrium has been restored now that the crucifix has left, as inadvertently expressed in Moses’ bemused, but not uncharitable, face. Sluter’s sculpture, as sculpture is often want to be, presents the myriad details of the crystalline moment in exquisitely wrought immanence and thus transcendence. An exploration of the Platonic conceit believed by that far more famous sculptor of Moses; Michelangelo, who believed that he only need chip off the surplus marble to find the correct image as preserved within. In Sluter’s depiction, the thicket of Moses’ beard is in rabbinic tangles, the deeply creased forehead of the old man he came to be, and the wide eyes of the liberator who espied his Holy Land but was not allowed to enter it. And above those eyes a pair of corrugated, rigged, caprine horns, a bizarre artistic mainstay and the result of Jerome’s mistranslation of the Hebrew word “ray” into its near homophonic twin, and also unfortunately the origin of that strange anti-Semitic slur.
A similar conceit is seen in Michelangelo’s much more celebrated sculpture of Moses, but it’s important to remember that as strange as the convention is it was to reflect the biblical text’s sense of the prophet being glorified in the moment. Moses’ narrative is, if anything, a story of sanctified moments–of theophany. The crystalline moment is nothing if not a type of encounter with the divine, a sort of event rendered in permanence. Consider not just Moses discoursing with the tautology-spouting burning bush, or the experience at Sinai which some mystical-minded Jews believe was a moment that encompassed and included every Jewish soul that ever had, would, or could exist–a type of monad in history, but also that Moses’ narrative had a certain sense of the transitory immediate at its core. After all, what a victory of metaleptic brilliance is a book which contains its author as a character within it, while recording his own death? The ultimate breaking of the fourth wall.
Moses is as apt as any prophet to explicate the crystalline moment, for as the supposed author of the Torah he was as familiar as any with how a sequence of such presents is the spine of all representation, of how every second contains both immanence and transcendence, but it is the artistic eye which preserves it as such. What is called for is an aesthetics of emanation, as the kabbalists who charted the way in which the overflowing abundance of existence itself permeated and defined every blessed, wakeful moment of our experience. In their baroque cosmology such emanations are called “sephiroth,” and they’ve titled the sections of each one of these reflections, but you need not read that in an overly literal way, even as I do find usefulness in the concept of the crystalline moment as a reflective for that which is beyond.
Art is not defined as such because of what it depicts, or who made it, or what pragmatic utility or purpose it may or may not have. There is good art and bad, political art, didactic art, sacred art and commercial art. Literature with a message, and that which revels in its presumed neutrality; art meant to decorate and art meant to offend; songs of resistance and hymns of collaboration. My schema has no comment on the merit or lack thereof in any of those subjects, rather what I envision is a certain standard model of particle physics for the crystalline moment, one that doesn’t distinguish between what’s “good” or “bad,” but only that which defines art as such in the first place (and we’ll leave it to other critics to differentiate what of that is worthwhile or not).
My next series of observations will examine the moment in succession, in what is called narrative, but whether put in sequence or not, it is the depiction of a crystalline moment that makes art what it is. Adherence to capturing the unseen perennial now in its eternity, to the elevation of the mundane into holy narrative, a sense of the fleeing deified immediacy of the Now in all of its mercurial sublimity. Every second is a portal through which holiness flows; art is the defamiliarization technique that reminds us of that sacred intuition.
About the Author:
Ed Simon is the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books. His writing regularly appears at sites like The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Salon, LitHub, The Millions, and several others. His collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion will be released by Zero Books later this year. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon, or at his website.