Not that kind of pornography: not the viewing of sexually explicit photos or nude yoga classes. Rather, pornography that creates a sense of desire or aversion, as described by James Joyce in his novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Joyce’s prime character, Stephen Dedalus, who is the avatar for Joyce himself, explains that there are two kinds of art: proper art and improper art.
The feelings excited by improper art are kinetic, desire or loathing. Desire urges us to posses, to go to something; loathing urges us to abandon, to go from something. These are kinetic emotions. The arts which excite them, pornographical or didactic, are therefore improper arts. The esthetic emotion [of proper art] is therefore static. The mind is arrested and raised above desire and loathing.
If we broaden the term “art” slightly to include our yoga practice, Joyce’s insight is quite valuable. Proper art leads to esthetic arrest: proper art is static. Improper art is dynamic and leads to some sort of action. In this respect we could characterize proper art as “yin” and improper art as “yang”: by using the terms yin and yang we could subtract the judgmental factors from Joyce’s explanation, but clearly Joyce was making a judgement. Proper art is skillful, useful: improper art is not skillful.
The desire and loathing excited by improper esthetic means are really not esthetic emotions not only because they are kinetic in character but also because they are not more than physical. Our flesh shrinks from what it dreads and responds to the stimulus of what it desires by a purely reflex action of the nervous system.
Improper art is that which titillates or repels us: these are desires of the flesh and are not the deep emotions. Advertisements are often artistically rendered but this is improper art, intended to make us desire something or to act in a certain way. This is pornography in Joyce’s definition. A painting that makes you think, “I wish I had that in hanging my living room” is pornographic. A documentary on injustice that fills us with a desire to go out and fix the world, art that Joyce calls didactic, is the second form of improper art. Didactic means to teach, generally with some moral overtone. Think of any of Michael Moore documentary: people are often motivated by his art to take some sort of action to change the world. That is what Joyce means by kinetic: art that impels us to move.
Many yoga teachers have the same intention: to make us move. I don’t mean movements within the yoga practice, but movements of the mind: movements that create desires to change, to act, to advance or retreat. We can find both forms of improper yoga offered: didactic yoga that impels us to go out and fix the world, and pornographic yoga that creates a desire for a nicer body, gymnastic abilities or a myriad of other goals. This is yang teaching.
Our culture drowns in improper art: all forms of media display it – images that create a lust for something or an aversion to something. Businesses and politicians play on these pornographic themes daily. They want us to do what they want us to do and employ their improper arts to move us. Advertisers are masters of pornography: politicians are masters of the didactic. Proper art, however, stops us dead in our tracks. This is the art of the poets, mystics and advanced yogis.
Esthetic arrest is static: there is no movement towards or away from anything. This is yin. The word “esthetic” is from the Greek: it means to perceive or feel. It is a felt sense. Arrest simply means to stop. When someone is arrested, he is stopped. Static has that same quality. There is an art that can literally take one’s breath away: the moment between breaths is the moment between thoughts. Joyce quotes Thomas Aquinas and states that proper art is whole, harmonious and clear: what a wonder way to think of yoga practice. In proper art, the heart and mind are stopped: there is no desire for the art being perceived. Proper art dissipates the separateness between the object being sensed and ourselves as the subject doing the sensing. To quote Joseph Campbell, “The esthetic art is simply a beholding of the object. You experience a radiance. You are held in esthetic arrest.”
I recall vividly a time I beheld a statue created by Michelangelo. I was 19, travelling alone through Europe. I had just finished reading The Agony and the Ecstasy, a story of Michelangelo’s life by Irving Stone when I reached St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The statue that arrested me was the Pieta: mother Mary holding in her arms her dead son. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t think. Occasionally I would break the trance and try to look at the statue and see the details; to find the strokes of the blades on the marble, to evaluate the proportions and overall shape of the tableau before me, but it was useless to analyze it: I got stuck over and over again. I was in thrall to proper art.
And then, as is our wont, I wanted to capture the moment. I had no camera with me, so I bought a guidebook that had several pictures of the statue. Back home I tried to explain to friends what a wonderful experience this had been, but the pictures in the book had become pornography: they merely inspired a desire for what I felt, not the feeling itself.
We have all had experiences of proper art: of stopping – perhaps by the sight of a wonderful sunset, a glimpse of an unexpected rainbow, the dew glistening on a spider’s web at first light. I had another moment of esthetic arrest the moment I held my first child in my hands, a few minutes after she was born: I was again stopped in awe and wonder at this amazing creation. And then we miss it: we start to think – “I should try to capture this moment somehow so I can hold onto it or share it with others. Let’s take a picture.” We substitute yang for yin: improper art for the real thing.
This occurs in our yoga practice: yoga, like meditation, can be arresting. We are given the chance in every practice to stop and just be with the awe and wonder of the body, the breath, the room, the people around us. We can just let it all be: we can go yinside. In proper art the viewer and the viewed become joined: there is no object and subject any longer. This is exactly what the Buddha and other great teachers have long taught: there is no self and other. The Buddha came to illumination and was enthralled. He sat for seven days on the immovable spot: there was no-one to move. Separation is an illusion. The Buddha named three poisons that afflict us and cause suffering: desire, aversion and ignorance. Desire (I want this) and aversion (I don’t want that) are stimulated by improper art. This is created by ignorance: pornography creates the sense that there is an object out there that you can possess, and with this delusion comes the desire to possess that object. Proper art, proper yoga or meditation dispels the illusion of separation leaving only the arrest.
Is yin good and yang bad? No – that is not the point being made: Joseph Campbell also observed, “The esthetic experience transcends ethics and didactics.” The art that stops us need not be beautiful: it can be sublime. This is using the word sublime in the sense that Edmund Burke did when he said that we can be moved to awe and horror by that which is sublime: that which is dark, uncertain and confusing. The sublime can be the complement to beauty as darkness is the complement to light. Even our pains and injuries can lead us to an esthetic arrest: it can feel so wondrous to just be able to feel.
This is where the yin-side of our yoga practice can lead us: to the still point, the stopping, the stopping, the stopping. This would be practicing the true art of yoga, the proper art. To be where we are at, without desire to improve, or desire to go further and without an aversion to staying where we are. The challenge in this still place is to let the ego drop away: let the subject and the object to become undifferentiated. This sounds like an action but it is the ultimate inaction. There is no “doing” here – this is the deepest allowing. When I viewed the Pieta of Michelangelo, I did not try to enter a state of arrest, the art took me there. In the same way we are arrested when we behold the sublime, we are stopped in the midst of our practice. Our practice, with all its challenges – because of its challenges – is sublime. You will know your yoga practice has become proper art when you find yourself residing in your postures calmly in wonder.
- — From A portrait of the artist as a young man by James Joyce, page 189
- — Ibid
- — From The Power of Myth: Masks of Eternity by Joseph Campbell.
- — Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Part I, Section VII, “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling….” In Part II, Section II, he writes: “…terror is in all cases whatsoever, either more openly or latently, the ruling principle of the sublime.”
- — I am using the word ego here in the Western sense of that principle that relates the unconscious mind (our psyche) to the reality that we are facing in this moment, as opposed to the Eastern view of ego meaning the personal, and false, sense of myself.
(Back to Newsletter #11)