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Creativity & Annihilation Tracing the Process of artistic Creation in the dance of a copper Shiva

Nur durch das Morgentor des Schönen
Dringst du in der Erkenntnis Land. [1]

“Only through Beauty’s morning-gate
Do you press on to the land of Knowledge”

Before me on the desk is a small copper cast of Shiva in the avatar Nataraja, “Lord of the Dance.” If I wish to grasp this modest (in the technical sense) piece of art, I could literally reach out and take it in hand. But this would be apprehension of only the most basic variety. Scientific analysis might at first seem to offer further insight into the object before me, but any expectation of this sort is sustained only by the promise of knowledge and never its fruition. To wit: any analysis will only yield new objects of analysis. Moreover, every step of progress in dissection shunts the object further away from my initial query, changing the subject, as it were, from the object of my concern to what that object is made of, to what that what of the object is made of and so on ad infinitum. My only hope of truly grasping the work of art before me is to turn my back on this endless festival of dissection. A rainbow that is unwoven is not a rainbow and neither is an artwork identical with its material elements.

Having escaped the fugue of compulsive analysis, I might progress to a more nuanced method of aesthetic appreciation and investigate the mythopoetic lore behind this figure before me. As copper ore was the material source of the cast before me, so the mythical figure of Nataraja stems from deep in the bowels of Indian mythology. I may read of gods like Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. I will learn of the Yuga cycle and the respective roles of the three faces of the Godhead in its progress. Still, however, the copper remains opaque, as it were, even though I now recognise the reflection of its subject in the metallic likeness.

Next I may deepen my contemplation of this figure within the context of these myths. As Lord of the Dance, Shiva arrives to redeem Brahma’s weary world. Shiva’s appearance heralds cosmic annihilation; his dance—the tandava—is like a grand Bacchanalian finale. The resonance between Nataraja’s iconic posture and its mythic significance will immediately kindle my imagination. Like a trumpet note, it will reverberate in metaphorical resonance, forming chords of association as I begin to draw analogies from prior experience. Out of the darkness archaic Aegean culture, before the brilliance of the Socratic tradition bleached philosophy in the fluorescent lights of the rational intellect, the words of Heraclitus sound as we find them recorded on one of his extant fragments:

“Hades is Dionysus”

Nataraja is a—I almost say “living”—embodiment of Heraclitus’ pronouncement, since the copper cast before me appears to come to life by the quickening impulse of sympathetic imagination. Death and dance: they are not two. My imagination now leaps like Shiva! I am reminded of the one-hundred and second chapter of the great American author Herman Melville’s magnum opus, when Ishmael recounts his pilgrimage to an island in the South Pacific to visit the jungle-bound skeleton of a sperm whale:

Now, amid the green, life-restless loom of that Arsacidean wood, the great, white, worshipped skeleton lay lounging—a gigantic idler! Yet, as the ever-woven verdant warp and woof intermixed and hummed around him, the mighty idler seemed the cunning weaver; himself all woven over with the vines; every month assuming greener, fresher verdure; but himself a skeleton. Life folded Death; Death trellised Life; the grim god wived with youthful Life, and begat him curly-headed glories. [2]

All Shiva! All Shiva! The erstwhile copper figure, before scarcely more than a talisman for Shaivites or naïve Alaskan tourists, now becomes all Destruction, all Creativity. Like the ouroboros, which links the end and the beginning, or the Phoenix, whose grey ashes are an embryonic yolk to nourish the youngling, so Nataraja becomes a transcendent symbol of coniunctio oppositorum—the marriage of opposites. Amidst the flames, his raised hand seems, in assurance to speak the words:

And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one. [3]

Universal process, world becoming appears to me, bound, enchanted, crucified into matter, but ready to resurrect and ascend on the wings of aesthetic imagination.

गते गते पारगते पारसंगते बोधि स्वाहा

Gate, gate, pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā

“Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond…O marvelous awakening!” [4]

The question I chose to explore in this piece was that of artistic inspiration. More specifically, I wished to understand the source of the creative impulse. My attempt was to create fertile conditions in my mind and allow the seed of this question to germinate. As it began to grow and send out shoots and tendrils, I employed as scaffolding the concept from medieval Koranic and Biblical exegesis—that every line of Scripture contains seven levels of meaning—to guide this project. This seven-foldness appears in image in the Revelation of John as seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls whose opening, sounding, and divulgence symbolise the apocalypse (literally apokalypsos is “unveiling,” i.e. “revelation”). I took my enterprise to be the “apocalypse” of the copper Shiva. Scriptural hermeneutics has tentatively articulated these seven levels of meaning as literal, allegorical, tropological, anagogical, symbolical, synecdochical, and hyperbolical. This codification appears somewhat pedantic and arbitrary (especially from the “hyperbolical,” or “mystical” standpoint). Nevertheless, as a framework, this was useful and it furthermore seemed fitting to employ this hierarchical progression for the reason that, if I wished to understand the creative impulse, it seemed necessarily to start with the given (i.e. the mundane piece of copper on the table before me) and then attempt to retrace it back to its ineffable source. As a conclusion, my hypothesis is that Creation follows this trajectory in reverse, an emanation from the ecstatic Pleroma to an imagination, to an image, and finally to a wrought work. Nature is the wrought work of angels, devas, and gods, who are in turn imaginations from the inexhaustible body of Brahman. Creativity is also cosmogenesis insofar as these processes share a common origin—only in their respective terms is this identity obscured. Through the aurorean gates of Beauty we discern this Truth. In this sense, I could have begun this exercise with pebble, or a mustard-seed and arrived at the same beatific answer that I achieved in retracing the creation of the copper Shiva.

[1] From Friedrich von Schiller’s Die Künstler. http://www.textlog.de/schiller-gedichte-die-kuenstler.html

[2] Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

[3] From T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets 

[4] From “The Heart Sutra” of the Prajna Paramita


Written by

Max Leyf is a certified Rolfer, a writer, an adjunct professor of philosophy, and a doctoral candidate in the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness program at the California Institute of Integral Studies. He sees philosophy and Rolfing as reciprocally completing one another, as word to deed. He currently lives in Anchorage, Alaska, where he was born and which, despite having lived for extended periods of time in Sweden, Colorado, Brazil, and California, he has never ceased to call home. His favourite book is Hamlet and he is the author of Honeybees of the Invisible, But Now Face to Face, and Five Themes: Mind Live, Self, Truth, and Knowledge.

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