Foto de la ilustración de fondo © Rolando Prats (2016)
Con Omar Pérez en Seúl
Omar Pérez López (La Habana, 1964) poeta y músico, ensayista y traductor, Premio Nacional de la Crítica (2000) y Premio de Poesía Nicolás Guillén (2009), acaba de regresar de Seúl, adonde fue invitado a participar en el Foro Internacional por la Literatura Seúl 2017 (2017 Seoul International Forum for Literature), del 23 al 25 de mayo. El primer día de actividades del Foro, en la primera de dos sesiones dedicadas al tema “Perceiving ‘us’ and ‘them’”, Omar presentó el ensayo homónimo que el lector podrá encontrar más abajo en su versión original en inglés. Paralelamente, el día 24, en el Seoul Youth Center for Cultural Exchange, Omar dio lectura al segundo ensayo que reproducimos aquí, también escrito originalmente en inglés, “Notes on improvisation”. Aprovechamos la ocasión para conversar brevemente con Omar sobre su paso por Seúl.
¿Qué fuiste a hacer a Seúl? O tal vez prefieras que se te pregunte ¿a qué te ha dicho Seúl que sí, a qué no?
A trabajar o, como decía Pessoa, para qué seguir sino para más seguir. Seúl no me ha dicho que no a nada, tampoco he pedido mucho; según Lorca, el poeta no pide benevolencia sino atención y si empiezo con la manía d citar poetas es porque d eso se trata, d poner, en el momento dado, el lenguaje d la poesía en el plano q le corresponde: el primero, por delante d la política y la economía e incluso d la filosofía, q no dicen ni escuchan nada.
¿Alguna primera o última impresión, fuerte o débil, de la pertinencia y utilidad del Foro?
Es obvio q reunir seres bien pensantes debe de tener, en sí mismo, algo d provechoso, aunque sea darse cuenta d q la comunicación es algo q no debe darse por sentado, ni siquiera entre intelectuales. La comunicación en los foros se parece al jet lag, q cuando empiezas a adaptarte es hora d irse.
¿De Seúl como espacio vivo para esa suerte de jazz existencial que insinúas, incluso propugnas?
Las mejores impresiones: a pesar del altísimo grado d americanización d la vida cotidiana, del stress profesional e incluso amateur, se tiene la impresión d q hay un cierto nivel d alerta entre la gente. Es una lástima q la política se apropie tan velozmente d esos espacios d conciencia, por ello los artistas deben operar con ligereza y brío, sin pensar tanto en la carrera, q es un asunto puramente político, si no deportivo.
¿Se regresa a la misma Habana dos veces? O, si prefieres, ¿has regresado más de una vez el mismo o a la misma casa?
Este año he notado, en la sala del check-in d inmigración, una valla propagandística: “Vive inteligente, vive Samsung”. Es tal vez lo q los budistas tibetanos llamarían una “coincidencia auspiciosa”. El año pasado, al volver d Buenos Aires, no estaba. Ahora está, volviendo d Seúl. Sign of the times, supongo. La casa está cercada, pero no tomada.
PERCEIVING “US” AND “THEM”
As I consider the topic, it is not possible to get this phrase of Pink Floyd out of my head,
and in the end
we´re only ordinary men
Who are the “ordinary” and who the “extraordinary” humans in this world is not irrelevant to the matter, but let us ask first, is it possible that the “us and them” dichotomy is a reminiscence of an ancient “you and I” dialogue disguised as the apparition of two distant entities? We know that in writing, not to mention other forms of self-expression, the second person is the mirror of an I; is it possible also that “them” is thus a form of “we”?
When Mohammed Ali received an Honorary Doctorate from Princeton University, he reciprocated the honor with a very short sort of poem, actually a one-liner,
One realizes that even a comma in between can become a wall; the hand-to-mouth grammar of existence can as well serve as a limit to the flow of being. Quantum Physics has made it clear –as clearly as such a notion can be understood– that things are insofar as they are involved in interaction in a given space-time and that there is thus no such thing as permanent clear-cut entities. On the other hand, how often have we encountered the discrepancy between “being” and “existing,” is such discrepancy pertinent to the “us and them” perception? In his poem “The Unknown Citizen,” W. H. Auden lists a series of traits of a regular “one-of-us” creature, someone who participated in a World War, worked all his life in the same factory, paid taxes, had a car, a record player and a freezer but… Auden did not forget to ask at the end,
Was he free, was he happy?
as if underlining the probability of two lives: one, measurable, made out of statistical interpretations of existence, and another life, irreducible to measure, composed of the joyful facts of just being. On one side, the achievement of just being and, then, its reverse, the fragmentary “being” of achievements and goals. Does this dichotomy, as it often presents itself in poetry, philosophy and works of art, correspond to an actual separation in human specimens between those who ordinarily exist and others who are in an extraordinary way? What would otherwise be the meaning of myths and legends depicting certain individuals, or groups of individuals, not excluding other animal species, who seem to share an unusual alliance with the avatars of being and becoming? In other words, there is a legendary notion in culture according to which “I” can become “it,” “you” and eventually “us” and even “them,” as we can see in Plato´s dialogues, the Bhaghavad Gita or Rimbaud´s
Je est un autre
I is an other; that is, at the very least, a verbal proof of how complex the act of perceiving separate entities can be when “I” or “you” attempt to account for a specific condition of existing. Obviously enough, when it comes to writing, elaborating, transcribing or translating ideas onto a page, virtual or not, the issue of who is it that writes as opposed to who is it that reads naturally jumps to mind. Do I write for you, for us or for an impregnable anonymous them?
In “The Barbarians,” a poem by the Greek poet Konstantinos Kavafis, there is a transparent vision, however uncomfortable it may be, of what to expect of the “us and them” partition. According to Kavafis, the “we” is always wary of the presence of a barbaric “they” which, in reality, has always inhabited our common self. Now, is there any such thing as a “common self”? In the study of language and language variations –let us not forget that the so-called Babelian curse is basically a virus provoking a partition of selves– we are able to realize that certain linguistic groups sustain the notion of “us” as a fallacy, not even worth considering in terms of a simple everyday sentence. Some languages, like the Lakota of the Sioux of North America, do not possess a cellular plural frozen into an “us,” but only an accumulation of “Ies,” that is, me and you and she and he.
Inevitably we must deal with a lot of platitudes and clichés as we approach the boundaries between language and perception and the perceptions of language because such events are heavily based on the production of clichés and commonplaces.
“I” needs to organize what it perceives by separation and classification as much as it needs, in other (perhaps more radical) situations, to relinquish a piecemeal perception in order to perceive a whole which is far beyond the necessities of a fragile individual-ness. In any case, as many a scholar on Hindu Advaitist thinking has pointed out, we need duality in order to attain non-duality. If the “us and them” cliché is a necessary one, we might at least be aware of what it is necessary for and which its communicational costs are. But then we should ask first if communication is our first goal when we are communicating.
So many things have been said about the utilitarian values of communication that very often one tends to forget (and at this point I must sincerely wonder who this “one” is) that communication is a value in itself. So, if “us” and “them” are not so distant relatives of “you” and “I,” it is clearly up to us (or me) to ascertain the degree of coincidence between all those particles of utilitarian speech. Much has been also said around the very existence and functions of an ego (including that unreliable structure as the “collective ego” is); sometimes the ego appears as the selfish inflated villain in a drama of many, a common enterprise, whereas some other times the most sublime achievements of the human mind are unattainable without the presence of an everyday, regular, transient ego. To define how transient and, at the same time, resilient an ego can be calls for a study in mental physics, if such a discipline exists. At least, we can acknowledge the actions of a stubborn “ego chip” throughout human expressions, be it sweeping the floor, doing an abstract painting or making love. Whether in philosophical or physiological enterprises we find a moveable, malleable center responsible, supposedly, for the most joyful or elevated deeds. No wonder many artists and poets, notably T. S. Eliot or Antonin Artaud, have dared defining their works as defecations of a disposable ego. And yet, as Eliot himself has put it, in order to abandon the ego, one has to have one in the first place and know how it works.
Going back to Plato´s dialogues, some of the notions they entertain –anamnesis, maieutic or metempsychosis– seem to imply that thinking is not a completely individual process but an interaction of minds and mindfulness, the latter considered not as an distinct condition but as a participation in a multiple, universal phenomenon. One almost would feel tempted to describe a coalition of discerning egos, an alliance of conscious entities eager to dissolve useless grammatical (or other) intermediaries.
And then, what about “us” humans and “them”, the rest of animals? There is no denying that the animal-human partition is fruitful in terms of industry, politics or even religion; however, is it so real and functional in terms of interaction, communication, not to mention just being?
We have been led to believe that the “us and them” perceptual trick –for that is how it basically works– is indispensable for survival while we very seldom wonder how useful it is in the light of love and evolution. Who is utilitarian enough to overlook the link between love and evolution? Is there really a communicative gadget more efficient and environmental-friendly than love?
In a poem by e. e. cummings we discover this conversation with mother earth,
O sweet spontaneous
earth how often have
prurient philosophers pinched
, has the naughty thumb
of science prodded
often have religions taken
thee upon their scraggy knees
buffeting thee that thou mightest conceive
to the incomparable
couch of death thy
them only with
“Them”, this time, are not barbarians; quite on the contrary, they are those supposed to be at the top of the human mental pyramid: philosophers, scientists, religious individuals. However, while building an alliance with nature, the poet sees “them” as vandals in relation to his beloved magical mother, probably the closest thing to his deepest sense of “us.” The fact that “them” can also be cultivated human beings groping among the many veils of reality –and not necessarily extraterrestrial invaders or heavy-handed oppressors– could mean, in the first place, that the “us and them” division is not one based on differences of culture –be it language, formal education, race, gender or the like– nor merely on an organized perception of reality such as it is offered by science, or sciences, which divides phenomena into elements, traits and categories: earth, planets, vegetables, liquids, numbers… It is rather a question of an instantaneous provisory function. In the end, philosophers will, literally, become earth regardless of any categorical division, whereas the poetic energy which is embedded in reality will eventually give course to new philosophy.
Félix Varela is a crucial character of the Cuban 19th century; a Catholic priest, he did a remarkable work in the field of knowledge, contributing to the reception, say, digestion of Western, European thought for the benefit of his pupils, early offsprings of the marriage between Mediterranean genes and the Caribbean islands.
Not satisfied with his endeavors as an educator and thinker, Varela tried to mediate in the increasing dissension between those creoles and their Fathers-Masters (Padres Patrones), the Spaniards. The latter were reluctant to accept the independence of thought and behavior typical of newly created specimens, such as the creoles.
While Varela had some success in the exercise of scientific research –like when he managed to establish in his teachings that, even if the authority of saints was undeniable in the religious terrain, in science the last word should be reserved to scientists– , in the political arena he failed in circumventing, much less transforming, the resistance of the metropolis. That is when he famously proclaimed: “It´s either them or us.”
Considering the genetic vicinity of the two groups, it is remarkable how rapidly the differences escalated into a “war of independence,” as it is technically called, and also how, a hundred and something years later, countless Cubans apply for the Spanish citizenship dutifully presenting their genetic link.
It would be fascinating to determine which role poetry plays in this sort of processes, and the same, of course, could be said about politics or economy; numerous people have tried to bring light to the process of evolution from many different angles. If you look at reality from the perspective of sex, everything smells like sex; if from the perspective of the so-called “law of value,” then everything sounds like the rustle of paper money, whereas, from the perspective of fear, everybody looks pretty much like an enemy.
From the perspective of perspective, anything is but perspective. When, in the Gospels, Jesus claims that “us,” or at least some of “us,” should stop fishing fish in order to start fishing humans, it is also a matter of perspective. In the end, I can only fish “my self.” Eventually, this self will be fished by us or them or whatever is there beyond grammar.
Going back to the Cuban 19th century, we find another remarkable character, Andrés Petit, who, like Varela, decided to operate in the field of cultural translation. Determined to foster the assimilation of African magical practices into a local religious system back then still in the making, he introduced the innovation of putting the image of Jesus Christ in the center of such practices, together with other “power objects.”
Whether or not this appears to be scientific enough, I have the impression that this sort of connection, as much as others more traditionally acknowledged, contributed to conform a new “us-and-them” cell.
From a scientific point of view, living organisms survive in a hostile environment by means of reproduction or adaptation. “Us and them” is thus a kind of molecular thinking, the sort of thinking which is good enough to start the process of real human thinking. However, there is more.
What happens when “us-and-them” is not enough, as in poetical thinking? Take, for instance, the notion of influence in art. This notion has a clear scientific flavor, it is a sort of medical or meteorological metaphor designed to explain how two or more poetical organisms –whether called poets, poems or even verses– coincide in a certain point of expression, be it tone, sound, intention, meaning and, naturally enough, word choice.
According to this viewpoint, an organism influences another in an A-B timeline, while there is also a barely disguised antipathy towards “less important” organisms (such as “minor” poets or artists), that is, those who are always in the B spot. Luckily, there is also the C organism to receive the information delivered by B, and so forth. It sounds very much like an Olympic gold-silver-bronze medal cycle. In fact, it is just another metaphor of biological competition or contest translated into the cultural field.
Competition, that is to say, purpose, is the golden rule of civilized life. Some people would automatically rule out “civilized:” they would tell you that life itself is nothing but competition, thus justifying wars and other forms of “organized” violence. Then, the role of culture would be to make this primitive, archaic impulse look like as civilized, that is, as entertaining as possible. The show must go on regardless of how obsolete or even vestigial the organ of violent competition appears to be.
On the other hand, not everything seems to have a purpose or to be busy with controlling, defending-and-attacking activities. It would suffice to open your eyes and look around to realize how much there is which is not in the business of vanquishing and being vanquished. When Hamlet declares “to be or not to be” to be “the question”, he is not going after the gold medal, he is just singing the world as it is.
Does that mean that poetry is disinterested, purposeless? To look at poetry, still, from the perspective of interest and purpose is to follow the same game of contraries. We have to accept that there exists also a poetical perspective that can function very well without the help of a specific goal, whichever the latter might be.
There is a natural analogy between Timon of Athens, the Shakespearian character, and Job, the rebellious man from the Bible. Both Timon of Athens and the Book of Job are essays on contradiction and both depict poignantly the disruption of social grammar: the way we think about “us,” “them,” “you,” and, eventually, “I,” is disturbed by a catastrophic event. In the case of Job, the disruption is placated by, literally, a Deus ex machina intervention; in the case of Timon, the disturbance ends up being irreversible. The role of catastrophes in the conformation of social conscience has been, perhaps, sufficiently studied and, on the other hand, the story of Job is so well known that it is unnecessary to go over it now. What could be necessary instead is to understand, at this point of our common story, how the place of the individual relates to the communal in times of crisis.
According to Slavoj Žižek, the specific role of Christian thought starts with Job, and that line of thinking is very much based in the assumption that –contrary to popular religious or superstitious conceptions– “there is no meaning in catastrophes.” For some, like the Italian writer Primo Levi, who survived a Nazi concentration camp, the reality of Auschwitz and the idea of God cannot be so easily reconciled. That is when human beings, in a different light, turn to one another and to that unknown realm which the “one self” is.
Job´s poem gives voice to polyphony of contradictions –or counter-dictions– between the brand new “I” of the sufferer and that which this sufferer calls, ironically enough, “the voice of the people.” If we could but detach ourselves a bit from this polyphony, we would notice that each and every voice is, practically speaking, singing the same message: God is right, God is wrong, but in the end we cannot know his reasoning, which equals the reason of things. As Elifaz, one of Job´s contradictors, puts it:
Do you think that man, however wise, can be of any use to God?
In reverse, and this is Job´s suspicion, the same question runs between the lines,
Do you think that God, however wise, can be of any use to man?
Whereas the validity of wisdom is not questioned in the poem –as it radically is in the Ecclesiastes– the author seems occupied in discerning how it can be attained and transmitted,
Where does wisdom come from? Where does intelligence abide?
Man does not know its value nor does he find it in the world.
The abyss says “I do not have it,” and the sea “it is not here.”
It will not be exchanged for gold nor its price fixed in silver.
In the same ambivalent line, the poem contains a criticism of patience as passive assimilation of the common law –whether it can be called doxa or dogma or even folklore– while hinting at a natural lore beyond reasoning which is metaphorically named “the law of rain”, that is to say, the original logos.
While the author of The Book of Job is concerned with wisdom and its circulation, in Timon of Athens, Shakespeare is busy exposing how wisdom is closely related to the circulation of money, that symbolic unit which Karl Marx called “the self of the other.”
Timon is an Athenian nobleman who gives away his money, that is, his own self, for the benefit of a consumerist and hypocritical community of “flattering lords” and senators. When prodigality surpasses economic reasoning, Timon becomes, first, a debtor, then an outcast –literally a prodigal son in the common law of value and, finally, a “sworn rioter” and a madman “to the world”, very much like Job and, for that matter, Christ. As one of the characters of the play, one Hostilius, puts it,
Man must learn now with pity to dispense;
For policy sits above conscience.
So much for wisdom, and so much also for the symbolic value of money because being has been outcast from the circulation process which is now a question of having and accumulating. When another character makes the demand to
Banish usury that makes the senate ugly
one cannot help remembering Ezra Pound denouncing, in his XLV Pisan Canto, the contra naturam practice of speculation, raging against those who Timon calls “affable wolves;” nor can we forget how Pound was eventually condemned as a traitor and then as a madman. Timon´s rage is directed towards the measurability of kindness: “cut my heart in sums and tell out my blood,” he claims before leaving Athens, the mythical cradle of democracy, to live and die in the woods, “where he shall find the unkindest beast more kinder than mankind.” When Timon declares, “I am a misanthrope,” he goes one step further than Job in his rebellion against common sense, for Job still appeals to the ultima ratio of God, who is a typically anthropological sense unit, and thus he remains attached to the world of reason, and unreason. As Timon answers to one of his many contradictors “I do wish thou wert a dog that I might love thee something,” he not only leaves behind the commonsensical assumption that only humans, as God´s favorites, are supposed to enjoy the primacy of love, but also entertains the no less commonsensical notion that animals –meaning, them animals–, as non-thinking beings are entitled to innocence, which is another anthropological fabrication.
It is true that in such critical moments, against the background of political us-and-them disruptions, the “I” in anger, while defying the whole fabric of “politic love,” as Shakespeare calls it, calls out for a new type of love. It is then that he resorts to nature and them-animals. Shakespeare is aware of this back-and-forth projection process when he has Timon say,
give to dogs what thou deny´st to men
as if forgetting that dogs are also a human creation or, at least, a case of human participation in the act of creation. This unending stream of projections between humans, gods and them-animals has haunted the mind ever since there was something we could call “the mind.” Sacrifices to gods, or to god –which, from the perspective of the slaughtered animal, must be pretty much the same– are a good example of these mental transitions. Humans sacrifice them-animals to propitiate those gods who are a projection of our best capacities. When this is not enough, we sacrifice other humans by means of war, starvation or more elaborate means such as paid work.
The Aztec civilization is a famous example of the practice of human sacrifice; still, whereas the Aztec offered an explicit discourse, however infamous, on the necessity of this practice, and a detailed elaboration of the ensuing methods, this civilization of ours is not so overt in this respect. In one of his dialogues in the woods, this time with a bandit who justifies his want of money by saying,
We cannot live on grass, berries, water as beasts and birds and fishes
You must eat men. Love not yourselves: robe one another.
From Job to Shakespeare, from Homer to Auschwitz, there have been several thousand years of common living experience and numerous examples of poignant and heartfelt analysis of that experience, yet the notion of separation among beings is so much stronger that not even the apparition of a line of reflection on the interdependence of all existences from, say, Zen Buddhism to quantum physics, has been able to change the tide of thinking.
The fact that a human embryo in its development resembles other animals, like fish or reptiles, with which it shares a genetic heritage, does not seem enough to make us think of “us” as a wider family. We opt for separation and, going back to the idea of sacrifice, the invention of God comes handy. The concept of sacrifice is indeed very similar to the concept of money: it is a never ending game of intermediaries.
Since it is obvious that the amount of sacrificing has been more than enough, the question is, how external is this eternal debt? Is it a debt that, as some poets have claimed, we acquire through the mere revenue of living? As does Calderón de la Barca in La vida es sueño (Life is a dream),
For the greatest sin of man is being born
And, in that case, who´s to pay, us or them?
In his poem “Ithaca,” Konstantinos Kavafis depicts a critical return to the self. Despite the fact that it describes an experience shared by millions of human beings –and most surely by millions of other beings as well, namely that somewhat mysterious activity we can call the migratory drive–, there is something unequivocally individual about the poem.
The voice of this Odysseus has a distinct tone of self-conscious sadness which has nothing to do with pessimism of fatalism. It is not a philosopher´s voice, it is a traveler’s. This sadness attempts to summarize the whereabouts of this endless journey within a journey that we know by the name of evolution.
Human beings carry in their genes an ideal that, if misunderstood, can lead in the way towards superiority and the exercise of the so-called “free will,” basically the will to prevail no matter what. Rightly understood, the idea of perpetual evolution seems to place the human being in a singular spot among countless forms of existing: that of a creative observer, a creature who, by the sheer power of observation, is able to modify reality. That is why, at the poem´s turning point, Kavafis wonders,
For how long still shall my spirit be immobile?
Relentlessly moving through the planet in search of “another land, another sea,” or “a city better than this one,” the Odysseus incarnated by Kavafis offers a skeptical view of so much physical and spatial activity displayed around the stagnation of the human spirit, while pointing at the interdependence of all phenomena end existences with a concise warning,
When you destroyed your life
in this small corner of the world
you destroyed it all over the earth.
In a lecture the Brazilian dance theoretician André Lepecki recently gave in Havana, he explored the connections between contemporary dance and darkness as a tool to equilibrate and re-interpret the ultramodern use of light. While, over the centuries, dancers have been taught and stimulated to “magnify their presence,” contemporary dancers of this century are starting to understand –thanks to the interaction with and within dark spaces– that, as Lepecki puts it, “the limits of yourself do not correspond to the limits of your image.”
Moving further on in this line of thought, Lepecki draws a fascinating analogy with the French writer Roger Caillois´ investigations on animal mimicry. Whereas the scientific viewpoint on animal mimicry is based on notions of competition and defense –very much in the military fashion–, Caillois concluded that animals who imitate their surroundings, love space and want to become space. Humans dancing in the dark, on the other hand, may discover that the person and the subject are no longer necessary or, at the very least, not in the usual protective and self-advertising manner.
Recalling Thorstein Veblen´s concept of “conspicuous consumption” –which has been conspicuously forgotten nowadays– and relating it to Caillois’ and Lepecki´s reflections on a depersonalized form of awareness, we might find it simpler to decide whether we want to become conspicuous beings, by way of competition and consumption, or we instead strive to develop into beings ready to become one with the space around us.
Havana, June 2, 2016.
Notes on improvisation
There are two elements that appear to us as soon as we start thinking about improvisation: they are discrimination and determination. If someone decides to carry out an improvisation exercise in, say, dance, acting or music, these two elements would automatically coincide in his or her mind. On one side, to do; on the other, what to do or how to do it.
At this point, we have to wonder whether it’s possible to act without thinking; it actually is. But then comes to mind, to the very mind which is thinking, another important question: what is thinking? Not to mention who is thinking, who is making the decision to do this or that, or who is trying to discriminate what to do and how to do it. It would be very comforting to decide beforehand that it’s “I” who is thinking and doing all the other possible operations; however, there is a very curious phenomenon: it is precisely during improvisation that we notice that the ordinary everyday “I” ends up in a dubious position, as if this “I” was not sufficient, not even adequate for improvisation.
We can say that there is an “I” which discriminates, and another “I” that makes decisions; we can even believe that it is a single “I” which discriminates and determines, but when improvising there is a strong feeling that tells us that the discriminating element, whoever or whatever it might be, cannot go very far in improvisation. That’s not its game, or its field of action, it is like fish out of the water.
And so not only it is possible that the ordinary “I” is not fit for improvisation; there is also a high probability that in certain moments, at some point of improvisation, an ego is not even necessary.
The world of improvisation, and I use the word “world” in its original sense of “human space,” is so rich that we haven’t done anything yet and we are already facing several complex questions and issues. So, let’s go back to the discrimination issue.
You have probably reached already the conclusion that, in any case, due to the very structure of the human mind, the very functioning of perception, we can’t act without discriminating before, because discrimination is rooted in the very basis of perception; very much as in the paradox of which came first, the chicken or the egg, we are not to take for granted the fact that it is perception that which conditions discrimination and not also the other way around.
You have probably also reached the conclusion that all this is but a useless conundrum and that its eventual solution will not help you at all to actually improvise... You would be right. That’s exactly the point, as long as I insist on depending on the intellect, to actually improvise remains an impossibility.
So, if thinking as a strictly intellectual capacity is not enough for improvisation, we have to ask ourselves if our bodies can think without the help of the intellect. As you very well know, bodies can think without any intellectual intervention, that is what they do every day by fulfilling their biological functions. One could say that “functioning” is not the same as “thinking,” however in the field of living beings, and nowadays also in the world of machines, nothing can function without a specific form of intelligence, namely the type of biological intelligence we can call “thinking.”
At this point, we pause to think about the phrase “biological intelligence:” the phrase is redundant, biology is composed of bios, life, and logos, a Greek word which can be translated in many different ways. One of them is “intelligence,” therefore life thinks, bodies think, and so do the elements, water, fire, air and so forth, the planets, the stars and the meteorites. Human beings are so much surrounded by thinking that, in fact, we could afford the possibility of not thinking at all for a while. That’s where improvisation appears as a door towards another kind of thinking, one which is not based on discrimination or judgment, but rather on just being and, so to say, acting in a fluid manner; actually, flowing.
Now, there is a curious aspect in any biological function: it is interested and disinterested at the same time. Breathing is necessary and it fulfills an objective need. At the same time, we don’t breathe for money, not yet at least. Even if humans can sing and dance for money, that does not mean at all that such biological functions as singing and dancing cannot be performed efficiently without any external compensation. To dance, to sing, to breathe… are “profitable” in themselves. So is improvisation.
How far can we go with improvisation, can we make it participate in our ordinary everyday life or is it constrained to the “artistic” sphere? We must come to terms with the relationship between structure and improvisation: as the saying goes, in order to grow it is necessary to have limits as much as generation, the creative impulse requires a specific frame, a reference point or a set of reference points. There should also exist some balance between those two elements: too much structuring would suffocate the creative flow, while an insufficient or unclear set of references would probably lead the creative impulse to drift away into nonsense... Or worse still, as nonsense can be rich in creative possibilities, we can flow back into immobility and stagnation.
So, if we take our everyday life routines as a sort of structure for improvisation, we will see that there are a lot of open spaces between the fixed lines, that there is an inner flow within the grid of conventional actions, a flow which includes such elements as surprise or chance, that is, unforeseen possibilities. At this specific moment of awareness, we realize that the structure, so to say, is breathing and that, in order to breathe along with it and through it, that element called “intuition” is much more adequate than the usual discriminating, intellectual sort of thinking.
Let us use the example of jazz to discuss the structure-flow relationship; jazz is a well-known paradigm of improvisation in art, in fact, jazz is synonym with improvisation. More often than not, the jazz paradigm offers a clear image of a predetermined structure with a flow or “swing” wherein a single instrument introduces an improvised solo; one by one, the different instruments, say, sax, trumpet, piano, bass and drums, take turns to produce solo improvisations in a prearranged order, thus fixing improvisation itself as a sort of structural element. And this is still called “jazz.”
Let’s take a look at the dictionary of synonyms: jazz, which is first and foremost, a “music characterized by improvisation, syncopated rhythms and contrapuntal ensemble playing,” can also be: 2, “empty talk,” and 3: “similar but unspecified things: stuff,” that is to say, material. As a verb, to jazz means “to increase the appeal or excitement, to enliven things up,” as well as to “energize, invigorate, quicken, stimulate;” whereas “jazzy,” as an adjective, can signify “active, sharp, smart, snappy and spirited.”
A few interesting aspects call our attention if we closely look at these synonyms: the fact that jazz can also be understood as “nonsense” or “gibberish,” or as mere “raw material,” but also that it can be “lively” and “snappy,” which is to say “brisk” or “keenly alert.” This state of alertness opens the door to acceleration and change of rhythm and also creates the possibility of flowing into solutions instead of striving to find them or even looking for them. Maybe it is in that sense that we can understand Picasso’s phrase: “I don’t look for, I find,” which reminds us of the old word “troubadour,” originated by poets-singers in the Mediterranean, and which means literally “finder.” Thus the French trouver or the Italian trovare mean just that: to find.
So, going back to the relationship between structure and flow, jazz can be a prearranged series of improvisations within a fixed frame, or it can be a gradual, spontaneous exchange between structure and improvisation so that each one becomes the other. This is what we can perceive, for instance, in Miles Davis 1969 pioneering work Bitches Brew. The structure is improvised from the very beginning, building, first, a mood, then, one by one, the instruments start repeating certain phrases or rhythms, therefore generating an inner frame, and from this inner frame, new improvisations flow out, repeat, generate new flowing frames and so on. There is something appealing and functional about repeating phrases born out of improvisation as a way to create fresh structure.
These repeating (and repeated) phrases able to create a structure reminds me of scaffolds, usually fixed predetermined structures interacting with other structures such as buildings, which, in turn, are interacting with a living environment. Sometimes, the environment or even the structural nature of the building itself does not permit the use of predetermined artifacts such as scaffolds. In that case, you have to improvise a scaffold. The idea of improvising an artifact is one of the basic elements of art.
The practice of zazen, offers a vision of dynamics within an immobile structure. Even though it is probably far-fetched to affirm that sitting in meditation is an opportunity for improvising, there is nonetheless a link, if indirect, between improvising and the kind of awareness that arises from a dynamics of stillness. The attention we devote to breathing, thinking (or not thinking: in zen terms one would talk about thinking the non-thinking), and the various, practically infinite details that appear to us as we observe, say, control, the strictly physical aspects of the posture, accounts for a spontaneous yet constrained activity of the body-mind which is very useful to comprehend the source of improvising.
On the other hand, the zen view of attachment to structure (material or otherwise) as a strategy to immortalize the ego is pertinent to understand the present-day human condition and actualize the old poetical vision of reality as a space where no one has a fixed space or existence, i. e., a “fixed house.” As the ancient nahuatl put it, there are only “flowers and singing.”
Seoul, 24 May, 2017.