I’ve read Elie Wiesel, Victor Frankel, Cory Ten Boom, & Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Somehow, this is the easiest story to take. No doubt because the brutal reality is tempered with not only the seemingly light hearted science fiction, but also with the superficial & banal life of the American bourgeoisie. Yet we never realize that Vonnegut’s not making fun of Billy Pilgrim. He’s contrasting the suffering of war with the luxurious complacency of empire.
Like any good humorist, Vonnegut let’s us forget that this hell was real by making us imagine that it’s fiction. We’re comforted by imagining that the absurdity of his story is fabricated and temporary, when what we don’t realize is, he is only mirroring the permanent absurdity of reality.
The day after the election I was a basket case (as you might have figured from previous posts on this blog). A professor of mine once suggested that our most prolific times would usually be times of emotional stress or poor mental health. He said it matter-of-factly, not even alluding to art therapy.
I remembered this advice (or admission) and decided that I needed to create something.
On the first day, my grief for my country was so deep all I felt that I could paint was what I felt. As Frida Kahlo once said, ” I never paint dreams or nightmares. I paint my own reality.” So this is what I painted:
I’d been teaching about the New York School. Action painters who emphasized the process as a cathartic, meditative experience and color-field painters who created pieces intended to invoke a contemplative mood in their viewers. It was very satisfying.
It wouldn’t leave me alone. It called out to me. This past Summer I’d read a biography of Lutheran theologian and WWII resistance member Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This Fall I re-read his reflection on Christian fellowship, ‘Life Together.’
Bonhoeffer refused to compromise genuine Christian discipleship to mollify the demands of the Third Reich. First this meant pioneering the “confessional” church movement and underground seminaries, but eventually he was recruited by the Abwehr (a German intelligence agency which pre-dated the rise of NAZI power) and thereby a number of assassination plots against Hitler.
He was For a year and a half, he was kept in a military prison, then to the Gestapo’s high-security prison, then to Buchenwald concentration camp, and finally to Flossenbürg concentration camp where he was hung in April of 1945 days before German surrender.
So I attacked my muddy brown canvas with black, then built an almost ghostly face with stark white. The under-painting began taking shape.A ghost in a concentration camp. Certainly not the prophetic voice of hope which I had met in his writings. But definitely a product of my own angst.
I thought I remember reading somewhere that angst is the combination of anger and anxiety born from the inability to control a situation or effect change. This is certainly how I feel about the election of Trump; a hateful, unprepared, unqualified, angry, entitled, demagogue.
There it stood on my easel for a week. Students commenting that it looked like me- perhaps an indictment of my melancholic disposition. To me it felt like Poe’s raven, constantly reminding me of the death of equality, liberty, justice and any hope of any kinds of peace at home or abroad. A dour ghost haunting my classroom.
I experimented in Photoshop with blending the original photo with my under-painting. The image was exciting and moving, but still ghostly. For me it evoked the spirits of Elie Wiesel, Anne Frank, Corrie ten Boom and Viktor Frankl, not just Bonhoeffer.
Finally this week, I resumed painting. Like the prophet Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, I attached flesh to the bones. But alas, dry ache became weeping sorrow. But at least students told me, “now it’s finally starting to look like him instead of you!”
Yesterday I made a great deal of progress, although I think it looked more like a cross between William H. Macy and Philip Seymour Hoffman than Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Now I felt like it had some indignation and resignation rather than just depression and despair. Somehow I hoped to add some sense of hope or faith, since these are the things Bonhoeffer demonstrated most to me.
Today, I feel like I gave it a great deal more dimension and solidity. I feel like it looks more realistic and closer to finish. This may be prejudiced somehow, but I think it even looks German or at least European- although I’m not quite sure it looks like Bonhoeffer exactly. I’m also not sure how to capture any hope. It may be too late for that.
It’s hard to imagine a martyr with any hope or joy- but that is what is so amazing about Bonhoeffer’s story- witnesses claim that they were amazed by his warmth and encouragement for his fellow prisoners and his amazing composure and bravery even in his final moments.
I haven’t decided whether or not I’m finished with it. Perhaps if I live with him for another week, he will tell me again. But I do like it. Of course, I liked that ghost-like mummy from the second and third days too.
To check that I had the spectacles in the right place, I held my canvas up to the projector on the SmartBoard in my classroom and projected the original photo onto the painting. I loved what I saw so much, I had to take a picture of it. It seems to me still sorrowful, but challenging as well. “What are you prepared to do, Ted? For democracy? For authentic Christianity?” Would I have the faith or the courage to make the kinds of sacrifices he did?
I pray I’ll never have to. One biographer notes that while he wrote treatises and essays and devotions and letters, he never really wrote much poetry until he was imprisoned. But I have to say, one of his poems is one of the most amazing pieces of reflective existential art that I’ve ever run across.
Once you read it, look back over the various stages of my painting’s development and imagine them reciting it to you.
Who Am I?
by Deitrich Bonhoeffer
Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a Squire from his country house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As thought it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
Equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
Tossing in expectations of great events,
Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.
Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!