The Actor and the Cathedral

May 13, 2019

During the 1948 summer session at Black Mountain College, John Cage presented a series of performances of music by Erik Satie. In order to contextualize what was then considered radically avant-garde music, he gave a lecture “In defense of Satie.” He began by pointing out that art is caught between, on the one hand, the desire to fulfill the needs of the collective, through tradition and on the other hand, the hunger for originality and individuality. In speaking about tradition he says:

“…we lament what we call the gulf between artist and society, between artist and artist, and we praise (very much like children who can only window shop for candy they cannot buy) the unanimity of opinion out of which arose a Gothic cathedral, an opera by Mozart, a Balinese combination of music and dance. We lament the absence among us of such generally convincing works, and we say it must be because we have no traditional ways of making things. We admire from a lonely distance that art which is not private in character but is characteristic of a group of people and the fact that they were in agreement.”

This text found its way into the devised script of a production which I directed in April at the University of North Carolina Asheville called: “Nothing’s Happening: A Black Mountain College Project.” We premiered the work mere days after the fire at Notre Dame, which made Cage’s reference to a Gothic cathedral more poignant than it otherwise would have been.

And it set me to thinking. Thinking about how when we value something, especially when we all agree to value something, we grab onto it really tightly.

I am no expert on Notre Dame. I have visited it many times and have always admired its beauty. I was dismayed on the day of the fire and shocked at the images of orange flames shooting up into the sky where the spire used to be.

When I was in Graduate School at Columbia University, I used to visit the Cathedral of St. John The Divine quite often. On warm days when the stone carvers were working on the figures around the main doors, I would watch them and marvel at the fact that this was a “living Cathedral”. It was not complete. It never will be. It is not a relic of the past, but an ever changing, ever evolving work of art. It is not created by one person. It is the culmination of vision and effort across a plurality of peoples and times. As Cage points out in the defense of Satie, it is an embodiment of a community’s ability to find agreement.

A healthy cathedral is not isolated from its culture or its time. This is the true nature of a Cathedral, and despite the historical failure of institutionalized Christianity to foster societies that reflect its professed values, we must expect better of all such institutions.

There will be a time, in the not too distant future, when people visiting Notre Dame will admire its beauty and hear about the “fire of 2019” as just another thing that happened in the life of this building. They will see whatever replaces the spire as part of Notre Dame in the same way that people of our time saw the spire that was destroyed; a spire which was part of the Victor Hugo inspired, 19th-century renovation, and controversial in its time.

All that being said; there is loss, and loss is sad. Given that change and loss are inevitable and part of reality, when destruction is unnecessarily aided by misguided ideology, it is truly infuriating. Few things upset me as much as things like the destruction of Palmyra, or even the colonial dismantling of ancient sites in places like Greece and Egypt. These sites were never going to last forever, but we should value them and respect them, and do our best to learn from them.

Often we experience loss when what we are involved in is a trade. That there are no longer trees in France that can be used to replace the timbers lost in the Notre Dame fire is an excellent spur to contemplation of our relationship between the built environment and the natural environment. Do we want trees of a certain scale, or do we want to make things out of big pieces of pretty wood? Those trees were lost long ago. It is ironic to me that the soaring architecture of the interior of Notre Dame actually evoked the beauty of being in a forest, yet we need the cathedral to burn before we really notice the destruction of the forest. The primary forests of France were already being decimated by human activity in the 12th century, so this is nothing new. Before fossil fuels and nuclear reactors moved our ships around, we turned our most magnificent trees into masts at a rate that should alarm us. But most of us don’t feel this trade-off emotionally yet. If we walk into a board room with a beautiful old growth forest wood table and an elephant foot trash basket, we are repulsed by the trash can, but we admire the beautiful burled wood of the table. I once read an account about the enormous size of the ships needed to carry the wood needed for one issue of the New York Times. Is this REALLY what we want to do with our trees?

Sometimes our impulse to preserve is the very thing that is misguided. I heard a story about a totem pole in Alaska that was decaying and rotting away. The local non-native community was concerned about this and raised money to take action to preserve what they saw as a culturally important object. When they approached the native elders with a plan to save the pole, there was confusion amongst the elders. One of them finally explained that this particular pole was erected as a curse on the white man. The curse was to last as long as the pole does. The elders were confused as to why the white people wanted to make it last longer.

Totem poles are interesting to contemplate. The raising of a large pole is an action that is technically difficult and very dangerous. It is a deeply meaningful ceremonial action undertaken by an entire community. Like building a Cathedral it requires agreement, but instead of consuming trees, it is about restoring one tree to its vertical position. Even though you need to cut down a tree to make one, the action of raising a pole is literally and meaningfully the opposite of felling a tree.

As a theater artist, it is sometimes frustrating that our work is as ephemeral as it is. Especially as I get older, it is hard to ignore the desire for there to be something lasting to show for the work I have done. But the fire at Notre Dame reminds us that all forms of permanence are illusory. Although much of it is made of it, a good cathedral is not set in stone. It may outlive many generations of people, but that’s just a matter of scale. When we lean into the illusion of its permanence, we lean into thin air, and we fall, tripping on the shins of Ozymandias.

Theater can help us stay free of this illusion. It can remind us that the present moment is the only moment. Remind us that what is important about a cathedral is that part of it which is ephemeral. Not the material it is made from, but how it interacts with us, and the meaning we find in it.

I am reminded of the ancient thought experiment known as the Ship of Theseus, in which Theseus’ ship is put on display as a memorial of his heroism. Over the years as parts of the wooden ship rot, they are replaced, until none of the original wood remains. Is it still the same ship?

The point of this is that the answer is not easy. Like a Zen koan, the Ship of Theseus carries us into a deeper understanding of the pre-Socratic idea that we can never step into the same river twice, or assume that we have a firm grasp on anything. That there is more truth in the letting go than in the grasping.

One of the most sacred shrines in the Shinto tradition of Japan is the Ise Jingu shrine in Mie Prefecture. First built in the 5th Century it is considerably older than Notre Dame. However, it has the interesting architectural feature of being, from time to time, dismantled and rebuilt with new wood. This is now done every twenty years and according to records, it has been done 62 times including the most recent instance in 2013. There is a specific grove of cedar trees which is maintained exclusively to provide the wood for this process.

Japanese culture places a high value on ephemerality. The cherry blossom is beloved not just for its sensual beauty but for the fleeting nature of its life. This is one of the reasons why the cherry blossom is associated with the edict within Bushido (the way of the warrior) to “choose death.” To European sensibilities, this can seem like a dark idea, but it is not necessarily so. If brevity is a characteristic of life, then one cannot fully love life if one fails to see the beauty in such an integral and essential aspect of it.

In his Lecture on Nothing John Cage admonishes us to regard music, not as a thing that can be possessed. He was seeing how the new technology of recording was fundamentally changing our relationship with sound, and as much as it opened up the possibility for music to include sounds that could not be recorded by traditional notation, it also made possible the illusion that a piece of music could exist as an object. A something. He warns “To imagine that you own any piece of music is to miss the whole point.” And a couple lines later in one of the most beautiful sentences in this amazing piece of writing, he says: “Everybody has a song which is no song at all: it is a process of singing”

When I think about how hard and rare it is for architecture and other arts to truly embody the deep truth of impermanence, I am thankful for how easily and lightly the theater sets this on the stage before us. It is hard to look at a cathedral and see its ephemerality. Even harder to see the beauty of that ephemerality. Notre Dame is not just a stack of stones. A stack of stones is dead. Notre Dame’s true nature is in its interaction with humanity. That’s alive. To truly feel it, we must learn to let go of the stones. There is deep beauty in the fact that someday, the rose windows will shatter into bits and be blown away… like a Tibetan sand Mandala.

Ephemerality is a feature, not a bug, in the basic nature of reality. The theater reflects this directly. Theater is an infinitely delicate interaction between people. We watch a mortal person in a moment of their life, fully living and putting deep meaning to the simple and mind-blowing fact of presence.

An actor on the stage is a Cathedral of the present.

Of being.