Welcome to the Art Knows No Borders blog! We are a newly formed art organization focused on raising awareness of trans-boundary issues in the Levant through art and education. Our team includes, myself, Oregon based artist and adventurer Noah Alexander Stein, Chilean artist, dancer, and educator, May Garces, trans-boundary researcher and artist, Sofia Kosel. This blog is dedicated to chronicling and sharing our experiences understanding the roots of inter-cultural conflict in the Levant. There is a long road ahead of us and I hope you join us on our journey as we struggle to piece together the broken bridges of our shared humanity!
The blinding light of death is the dissolution of individuality, absolute, consumptive, binding and limited; we are beings of both individual sparks and universal light. The flame that we carry is not selfish, and the births and metamorphoses engendered by death maintain a continuity even as given facets are extinguished. Through the kaleidoscope of change and destruction, love and rebirth, the raw spirits that coalesce into beings that perceive themselves and fear the unknown, remain untouched by the scattering.
Through an examination of this same self however, concepts of post-death states and reincarnations begin to be perceivable in their actuality. The root of this conceptual-self stems from the consciousness that interprets sensory input and imagines itself as a disparate entity, tied to a given physical apparition, self-constructed through narratives, habits, traits, and ultimately acts. This perspective is, at best, a half-truth, for it fails to consider the instrument of perception. Indeed the existence of an implicit physical world is itself a product of internal conceptualization. When sense, memory, and thought are understood as malleable, the dependent assumption of immutable physicality, and the ends implied by its decay, must inevitably be discarded.
It is in many ways a sacred moment when the dusty collection of particulate is at last dissolved into the universal, suspended in the primordial water, before emerging once more in new forms and acts. That the collection ever imagined itself as a thing apart was always an illusion, cast like a shadow by the singular light of consciousness. For even existentially, as beings that dream tales of a life lived and a narrative concluded, we were deceived. The great change that we defined as oblivion was inseparable from our breath. As we closed our eyes each night we, with unreasonable faith, trusted that that which left us would return. With each moment passed we did not mourn for the eddy of ourselves lost in the stream. Even the memories that we held with such precarious grips, that we swore gave truth to the lie, shift like dunes in the deserts of our individuality.
A better question than what follows death then might be what is the nature of the entity that perceives death? If the self-construct that perceives the physical is not defined by it, physical death may be regarded as a minor schism. Acts of transcendence can, in their turn, be understood as acts of self-identification, where an ego defines itself, not by a specific physical manifestation, but immaterially.
The immutability of death thus emerges as a reflection on the limits of an ego, rather than an incontrovertible trait of the universe. When the thin film of materiality peels back to reveal the light of the abyss, we are left with what is ultimately a choice; as the imagined manifest of an ego, be extinguished, or as the avatar of the universal, embrace the change, as we have ten-ten-thousand times before.
There is such beauty in the unordered, unrestricted natural flow of life that, following its own internal pattern, grows in a harmonious chaotic mass of being. So far from the manicured greenspaces and carefully sculpted lives that inhabit the great spiritual deserts of modern cities. Plagued by isolation, the lives spent in their cages cry out with desperation, plainly visible for those who have walked outside the walled garden.
In an existence so devoid of life. Roiled in sexuality so devoid of passion. Consumption without satiation. Every aspect of, true, unfiltered life shoved with urgency into stiff molds. A death that would be better without the false vestiges inhabiting empty forms.
We are not this. We were made to run free beneath the stars, with unfettered passions in a world as alive as our hearts. As the city reaches its claws into the sky and strangles the distant shimmering harmonies of light and swallows with a dull half-glow a night bleached of darkness; even the blackness of death is robbed from us.
The wildness in our souls must not be so quenched. Our breath must be like the thunder over the plains, overgrown and alive. Night must be allowed to return so that the stars, eternal beneath the shroud of unlight, can shine again, so that we can truly die, and guided by the stars, return and truly live.
“That is true, he said. And do you not suppose, Adeimantus, that a single boxer who was perfect in his art would easily be a match for two stout and well-to-do gentlemen who were not boxers?” – Plato, The Republic
The answer should be obvious that an ideal boxer, one who was perfect at their art, could defeat an limitless number of opponents. Just as the ideal artist could infinitely alter the viewer. The ideal farmer could feed hungry minds. The perfect knife could cut though paradoxes and truths. All such ideals ultimately approach the same singular concept of “perfection.” Infinite anything, once enacted, implies infinite everything. Our previously mentioned ideal artist would, through their ideal art, create an ideal reality. One that was, in practice, no different than that of the ideal knife.
Perfection is a curious concept. Such conceptual singularity is at the root of the Western concept of an immutable God. The idea that makes up this core, on which so many other ideas are either explicitly or implicitly base, is that God, rather than existing as a being of infinite perfection, is perfection itself. The unreachable concept, inexplicable but self-evident, the ideal being, the perfect work of art, are all in their ways descriptors for this singularity that all things might reach, given the infinite.
As matter approaches light each incremental increase in speed requires an exponential increase in energy. So too does any work, as it approaches perfection, require ever increasing effort to attain even the smallest incremental increase towards its ideal. Matter must not despair however; the tail of the serpent is also its beginning. The great paradox is that to achieve the unattainable one must accept the perfection in imperfection. The world is ideal already, as is the knife.
“Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” Genesis 3:17 – 19
One of the most interesting recurring motifs in near-eastern religion is the idea of mankind’s fall. Preceded by a state of harmony with the natural world, and precipitated by forbidden knowledge, it is the fall that leads to mankind’s current state of toil and mortality. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the myth catalyzes in the tale of the wild-man, Enkidu’s, sexual seduction and resulting understanding of language and civilization. In Abrahamic mythology it takes the form of the first man and first woman’s temptation with, and eventual consumption of, the symbolic fruit of knowledge. Persisting though minor variations, all stories end with the same result: a resounding human disharmony with the natural world, and the pain of death.
The common narrative elements of harmonious innocence, sexual temptation, knowledge, and an ultimate separation from natural grace reflect both a common heritage and also a persisting resonance. As a result of the long history of the story, myriad interpretations have attempted to account for its origin and enduring power. True to that nature of myths there can be no single, all-encompassing, explanation or account. Nevertheless, from the deluge of meanings can be extracted a critical account of one of the most basic principles of humanity’s interaction with the natural world.
Population of a species at any given time are generally the result of an equilibrium between resources, depredation, and natality. Fluxes in any of these variables triggers a reactive response that adapts to the imbalances. The responsiveness of the system results in both sustainable populations as well as dynamic ecosystems that are able to recover from periods of instability. Population explosions that occur during periods of surplus are thus followed by periods of constriction when the resource is eventually exhausted. The size of this contraction naturally varies depending on the imbalance, ranging from minor seasonal variance, to outright collapse when a severe disparity between resources and a dependent population arises.
The same forces can also be seen acting on and guiding the growth of human societies. While the resource in question may vary between time and place, from grain stocks and clean water, to fossil fuels and timber, the principles remain remarkably consistent. Unlike other species however, human populations are subject to a further factor that permits ever-increasing growth and mitigates contraction. For humans, the vagaries of the cycle are mitigated by technological innovation which permits either the better use of a given resource or, far more often, the exploitation of a new resource to fill the gap left by the consumed one.
One of the earliest and most dramatic examples of this is the Neolithic revolution. Rapidly advancing cultural sophistication and a changing climate caused a human population explosion that culminated in the extinction of the large migratory herd mammals that had previously sustained the growth. The imminent collapses facing societies dependent on these species however was averted by a rapidly shifting reliance on agriculture, hitherto used only as a supplemental food source. During this period of transition, societies by necessity left behind the more prosperous nomadic hunter-gather lifestyle for the more arduous life of sedentary agriculture.
While the innovations granted by the fruit of knowledge provided a reprieve from human collapse, it has not permitted such grace for the ecosystems we inhabit, and ultimately depend upon. Lacking periods of reduced pressure, damaged ecosystems and exhausted resources are rarely allowed to recover, and are instead faced with continued human expansion. As the emergence of agriculture once triggered vast tracks of forest being burned for farmland, so now does rapid climate change and urban expansion ravage remaining ecosystems. This pattern has replayed itself without pause as civilization has spread and decimated every natural ecosystem which it has encountered.
As various inevitable end points now, at last, begin to converge in our distant view, we are faced with ever-contracting options. Unlimited growth, no matter how mitigated by technological advance, will inevitably consume all non-human systems. As we now eye the stars with greedy vision, we must face the realization that the same tree of knowledge that has saved us will destroy us, or else, inevitably lead us on into the final exile.
In almost all expressions of Abrahamic religion there can be found the idea of a Messianic era-to-come. Despite minor variations, this vision inevitably presents a future state of worldly perfection; a time and place in which the faults of the current world are cleansed and the earth is transformed into an ideal finality. Inherent in this concept is the premise that there exists an apotheosis of the world; an ideal disparate from our current incarnation.
In Judaism this idea manifests itself as the arrival of the referenced Messiah and the rebuilding of Jerusalem. In Christian eschatology the idealized future takes the form of age of peace, where destruction itself is bound. In Islam the Messianic Age is marked by the return of Imam Mahdi and the Christ figure who together usher in an age of universal religiosity through Islam. Indicative of the pervasiveness of this concept, a no less potent secular version of this idea also exists. Such an “end of history” can be found equally underpinning systems otherwise as divergent as communism, western liberalism, and fascism. In all depictions, religious or secular, the distinguishing characteristic is that this static future remains distinct from any realized spiritual reality.
In a world of suffering and loss, the yearning to escape from ceaseless cycles of destruction and creation into an eternal stasis is an understandable conceit. The tragedy is that inherent in any framework that sees existence as broken is the root of suffering itself. To view the world as flawed is to nurture a wound spread with each attempt to fix what requires no repair.
Tellingly, in both Christianity and Islamic mythology the arrival of the Messianic Age is preceded by a final orgy of destruction, in which the forces of destruction themselves are violently purged from the ranks of the worthy. The idea’s secular manifestation often follows similar reasoning, with endless philosophies based on utopian visions of finality also pointing with equal abandon to the fires of genocide, warfare, and bondage. Such results should hardly be surprising: hatred begets hatred.
The oldest example of the messianic idea however is found in Judaism. Interestingly, in Judaism, a parallel concept can also be found in the principle of Tikkun olam, which holds that although the world is broken, through personal action it may be repaired and ultimately perfected. Like other examples, Tikkun olam, in its turn, has been interpreted primarily as a call to external action. A divergent interpretation however can see in it an internal manifest. A personal necessity to repair a shattered world which can be directly realized through the repair of a personal fissure.
Seen in this light, the only part of the world that is damaged is that part of ourselves that, in the refractions of our own perceptions, sees deformity instead of perfection. The true messiah is the understanding which discards the obscuring veil from what is already present in the waters of the eternal now. This is not an escape from action, but rather a call to it; for it also implies that the only act which is worthwhile is the one performed for its own sake. It necessitates that the transformations we desire be enacted now; for indeed, when else is there?
As the civilized systems of our collective creation seek to tame and exert dominion over the natural systems of the world, so too do they inevitably crawl within the wilds of our natures in search of conquest. The engines of industry, in coercion of their chosen tools towards impersonal and broken ends, indeed must banish the call of howling wills. Though our collective systems may once have been born out of the physical need caused by collective mistakes, such systems have persisted after the need has passed. Now, through structural edifices, and more insidiously, in the hearts of those caught within their nets, they have taken on purpose of their own.
For most, the nature of such systems is disguised by their constant presence; with habituation, their weight can be almost forgotten, lingering on only at the edges of awareness, nagging and persistent. This character is even more pronounced for those born into such worlds; ones who may find themselves unknowingly chained, both body and soul, to false necessities. Plastic simulacrums which destroy internal habitations with the same slow certainty with which they lay waste to the natural world. The culmination of this heritage forms a linkage that stretches not only across individual lives, but on into the span of generations.
The autarkic life of technological necessity, existing both independent of any singular individual, and yet lacking any embodiment outside, creates a strange tableau, in which each individual finds themselves both victim and oppressor. This apparent contradiction manifests itself first when such systems are internalized, and afterward in the external, when these same values are expressed once more. While we lack the power to directly fell such systems in their bulk, we do nevertheless retain the ability yo tear up their roots which dwell within us.
Indeed, a personal liberation is a prerequisite for the universal. The transgressions needed to topple the source of bondage requires a freedom that cannot exist in the conquered. After touching true freedom, a return to imprisonment is impossible; the force of final realization is enough to forever preserve an internal, indestructible, liberation. Once such freedom enters our souls, there is no return.
At their most essential core all elements of existence follow the same pattern: life, death, and rebirth. The creative act births new existence out of the decay of the old and, after a time, the new phenomenon is undone to permit the next incarnation. This rebirth can be seen in myriad forms but its essence remains the same: the destroyed image is recreated in altered form, with time becoming ever more divergent and slowly approaching a unity as the lines of the specific blur into the universal.
This cycle is visible at all levels of our personal lives, from the stream of the ever present now, to the circadian cycles of oblivion and lucidity that dominate our conscious minds. Our personal deaths are likewise shadowed by eternal returns, both physical, through our relations, and spiritual, through our words and acts. Even as a collective we can witness a similar order, where our societies pass through their own cycles of decline, revolution, and renewal.
The universality of these cycles is even more clear in the natural world; spring and summer bring rebirth and life, autumn and winter, death. The prey that perishes, through its death permits countless lives to be born and exist. The fire that ravages the forest and scourers out the most resilient of life also rejuvenates the soil and nourishes new growth. Each aspect of the cycle is a necessary element, contributing equally to continuing existence in an unending, ever changing, work of perfection.
It is for this reason that the earliest forms of neolithic religion looked to the sun. Such sun cults saw in the daily journey of the sun a metaphor for all other cycles, especially our own human journeys. As the sun travels across the sky so do we pass through our lives and into night. And as the sun sets only to rise again in the morning, so too do we die only to be reborn.
Such cycles can likewise be seen in modern spirituality, where this understanding has itself been subject to the principles it describes. A such, death and rebirth are as central to religion of today as they were to our ancestors. Even the symbolism displays the marks of these cycles. In Christianity the elongated cross only mildly diverges from the sun-cross, and as both symbols share similar forms, so too do they express nearly identical concepts. Likewise, other versions of the sun-cross are nearly identical to the Wheel of Dharma and svastika, respectively symbolic of the karmic cycle of life, death, and rebirth in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism. Indeed, this symbol dates back as far as civilization itself; in the Indus Valley, the same symbol was used as an astronomical symbol, representing the cycles of the heavens.
In our personal lives the lesson that we must take away from this understanding is that death is as central to existence as is life. As beings in the throes of existing we naturally posses a predilection for existence, and yet for life to continue we must learn to embrace destruction as well, faithful that rebirth is no more traumatic than if must be. And indeed, when we have learned to see the cycle in its fullness we likewise realize that the trauma of undoing is most painful because we fear it.