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The Human within the Architect (2/3)

Presented at the Frame Conclave 2019, Prem Chandavarkar discusses the abstract and sacred nakedness of being human, the enchantment and wonder that lies within our world.

by Prem ChandavarkarPublished on : Aug 30, 2019

Our bodies contain inherent artistic talent, creating new beauty on such an everyday basis (that) we fail to grant that creativity its due significance. As John O’Donohue remarks in Walking on the Pastures of Wonder, even the act of speaking is an artistic act: out of the silence within, we coax sound and meaning. Realising this, you can see so many other ways this creativity manifests itself every day. We walk and coax purpose out of stillness, we focus our gaze and coax significance out of the inconsequential, we laugh and coax joy out of indifference, we love and coax community and conviviality out of solitude, we dance and coax exhilaration out of detachment.

This sacred creativity is so powerful (and) we must learn to come to terms with it, and many of us fail in that quest. O’Donohue observes, “One of the sad things is that so many people are frightened by the wonder of their own presence. They are dying to tie themselves into a system, a role, an image or a predetermined identity that other people have actually settled for them.” The reason for this fear is that while modernity privileged our autonomy and freedom to liberate us from capricious dominations of power, the individualisation of that freedom offered little guidance on how to root it within larger horizons of purpose or community. Our current form of modernity has at its core an existential angst of loneliness, our fear of which induces us to cling to the predetermined to convince ourselves we are not alone.

As Rebecca Solnit tells us in A Field Guide to Getting Lost, we must learn how to navigate the unknown, to wander, get lost, yet be secure we can return. We must be like the experienced woodsman who can wander deep into an unknown forest but knows how to come back because he has learnt how to read the signs: the sun, the stars, the slope of the land, the soils, smells, wind and sounds of the forest.

The answer is in front of our eyes. We fail to see it because the models of knowledge we are schooled in are so far removed from how we intuitively live. Take the example of friendship. You do not find friends by first defining the truth or philosophy of friendship. If you tried that, you probably would not have friends. You find friends by opening your heart to strangers, spending time with them, listening to them, and when you find that the same things offer you laughter, fun, sorrow, or boredom in those resonances you discover what is larger than either you or your friend, you validate your own creativity, recognise the same creativity in your friend, and you find authenticity in that uncovered common ground. In friendship, we read the signs and know where to drop anchor.

A design by Ashari Architects for an architectural installation in Iran – The Pause | Human within the Architect | Prem Chandavarkar | STIR
A design by Ashari Architects for an architectural installation in Iran – The Pause Image Credit: Amir Ali Ghafari

The authenticity that awaits our discovery is not restricted to engagement with people: it is woven into the nature of the world, in art, in music, in nature. The musician Pushkar Lele speaks of beginning training in music since a young age, but after 15 years had reached a plateau he could not transcend. To break free of this constraint he sought change through a new guru, and began tutelage under Pandit Vijay Sardeshmukh. Lele expected his new guru to reveal the key to the higher realm he sought, but was pushed back to basics with a directive that for the next six months, for eight hours a day, he should sing only a single note: Sa, the first note of the octave. Lele found this a pedantic thing to do, but since tradition demands obedience to the guru, he did what he was told. One day, he sang the Sa his guru wished to hear, Sardeshmukh smiled, and Lele realised till that moment he had never hit the exact centre of a note before. If you trace the lineage of this epiphany, Sardeshmukh’s guru was Kumar Gandharva, and one of Gandharva’s gurus in his early years was (unusually for that time) a woman, Anjanibai Malpekar. Kumar Gandharva, in an interview, speaks of a lesson learnt from Anjanibai Malpekar, “ you start with a single note and then rigorous training gradually reveals to you an entire octave within that note”.

There is magic in these subtle differences. Imagine two professionally trained musicians, one who is good, and the other who is truly great. The good musician cannot be faulted on any lack of tunefulness or errors in rendering a composition. It is in subtle differences of microtone and timing that the great musician breaks away into a higher sacred realm.  This magic cannot be logically understood, for it depends on an embodied tacit knowledge that is beyond our capacity to speak about. It can only be uncovered through demanding experiential practice. Indian tradition has a name for this form of practice – sadhana – a rigorous, repetitive, ego-transcending practice of surrender with focused attention. Sadhana breeds viveka (discernment) that awakens awareness of the subtle beauty of the world.

This beauty cannot be possessed, for it inhabits a realm that is not solely human.  When you listen to a masterful musician, you lose yourself in another world defined by the fact that both you and the musician are captivated by the larger voice of music.  We can only be captivated by such larger voices, even the greatest mastery has not the least dominance over them. This captivation happens in many art forms; it can even happen in your consciousness of nature.  To reveal it in an art form requires a personal mastery achieved through great sadhana, but once it is revealed it is instantly recognisable even to the relatively uninitiated, as long as they are willing to suspend judgment and surrender their bodies to the experience.

Hemisfèric - An IMAX theater in Valencia, Spain, by Santiago Calatrava | Human within the Architect | Prem Chandavarkar | STIR
Hemisfèric - An IMAX theater in Valencia, Spain, by Santiago Calatrava Image Credit: Courtesy of Creative Commons

To know such a world is to know the world as an enchanted place, full of spirit and magic. Our ancestors saw the world this way. Then modernity located freedom within human agency, giving a primacy to this agency that led to an objectifying disenchantment of the world: the reason why ecological disharmony is the dominant crisis of our times.

An enchanted world is a deep well of meaning that never runs dry.  To live in such a world is to live in wonder, an act of joyful surrender. In The Theopoetics Podcast, Rev. José Francisco Morales Torres explains to us, “We have no control of wonder. We can’t say, ‘I’m going to wonder now’, and have that experience of awe. Wonder is completely out of our hands. One who is experiencing wonder is the object of wonder, the recipient of wonder…it is not only something that we cannot fabricate or control, it acts on us. Even though it is coming from without, it is experienced within. It’s in that in-between place that wonder happens.”

There is no rule book for this: the most one can do is to train oneself to be receptive to wonder so that we may know the bliss of being alive within a union of an enchanted world and our innermost being. To be bewitched by wonder is to know the greatest joy, the greatest freedom, that is possible. It occurs naturally in young children, and every day we observe in them this sacred nakedness of being human.  Yet, it seems to somehow escape our notice that we are schooling our children out of this natural, delightful, sublime state through modernity’s greatest error that equates freedom with an atomised personal wilfulness.

This brings me to what is abstract in the nakedness of being human.

The Abstract Nakedness of Being Human

I use the word ‘abstract’ in the dictionary sense: something that is general, that cannot be particularised to a specific instance. When applied to the nakedness of being human, it becomes a paradox. There is a line popularly attributed to Margaret Mead (although no primary source can be found), “Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.” Whatever its source, there is truth to this line. Look at any individual anywhere in the world, and you will observe that a person exactly like him/her has never existed in history before, and never will. What is abstract about us is a mind-boggling degree of uniqueness, and this has implications that are hugely significant.

It means that each one of us speaks with a completely unique voice, yet the common ground we find when we interact, when we recognise an enchanted world, reveals that this unique voice can speak of the sacred and universal. This is what the famous dancer Martha Graham meant in a letter to her dear friend Agnes de Mille when she wrote, “There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And, if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it.” 

When the universal speaks through your unique freshness, it resists a weakness we are all vulnerable to: the anaesthesia of habit. Try and recollect the very first time you drove a car. The nervousness of the first-time experience made you hyper-alert, taking note of everything on and along the road. Now shift to being an experienced driver on a route to which you are habituated. You can drive on auto-pilot, preoccupied with other thoughts, arriving at your destination with little memory of the journey. Habit is an anaesthetic that blinds us to what is in front of our eyes. Even the most sacred realm, once it becomes habitual, becomes something we will fail to see.

The mere presence of a unique voice is not sufficient: that voice must break free from cliché, using its creativity to speak with a poetic exactitude that awakens resistance to the entropy of life. When this happens, the universe is reborn every day in the unique, and this is the heart of what it is to be truly alive. To be creative is to take on the sacred responsibility of sustaining this great chain of being.

But there is another crucial dimension: the unique voice does not speak only once, it lives for a length of time and speaks repeatedly. How these repetitions are woven together is crucial. In a TED talk, Daniel Kahneman, a behavioural economist and Nobel laureate, narrates a story about a man who was listening to a recording of a symphony, and the sound of it was sublime. But towards the end, in the last couple of minutes, there was a distortion that produced a horrible screeching sound. The man, quite upset, complained that it had ruined the whole thing. But it had not ruined the experience of listening, for a majority of the moments spent listening were genuinely enjoyable. It had ruined the memory of listening. Kahneman posits that we have two selves: an experiencing self that lives in the present, and a remembering self, a story teller who weaves experiences together into a narrative. While both are crucial, the kind of happiness the two selves feel is very different. The happiness of the experiencing self depends on the quality of the experienced moment; and if I connect this to what I have spoken earlier, it is tied to the degree of wonder in the experienced moment. The happiness of the remembering self depends on the structure of the story it writes, and a lot depends on how the story ends. If the narrative contains an experience of unavoidable pain close to the end, the story is read as unhappy. Another narrative may contain a greater quantum of pain, but if that pain lies in the first half and the story ends without pain, then it is more likely to be read as happy.

Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined by Diebedo Francis Kere | Human within the Architect | Prem Chandavarkar | STIR
Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined by Diebedo Francis Kere Image Credit: Courtesy of Creative Commons

How experiences are shaped by the story written by the remembering self is crucial. Does experience become devalued by straightjacketing into an inflexible and predetermined story? Or can a story be written that increases the space within experience for wonder? More importantly, how does the story that my remembering self writes come together with the story written by others? Clearly, it is important to understand how we come together collectively around stories. For this, we must turn to the major story type we have used for this purpose across cultures and through the course of history: namely, myth.

What I say here on myth is substantively shaped by Jean-François Lyotard’s analysis in The Postmodern Condition, where he dissects structures of narrative knowledge in traditional oral cultures. This is an epistemology radically different from that of modernity. Today, with our faith in individual human agency, our knowledge structures revolve around the notion of expertise, where the story of the expert is granted greater significance than the stories of non-experts. But in structures of knowledge driven by myth, there is a cyclical reclamation of knowledge and expertise.

When I listen to my grandmother narrate a myth to me, I know that she gained the authority to tell the myth because she listened to it earlier. In my listening now, I am receiving the authority to tell at a later time. The story of the myth contains questions related to ethics, divinity, nature, and culture that encompass both teller and listener. There is no privileged position of expertise or authority, for knowledge is recycled in a manner that allows everyone to occupy all the three possible positions of teller, listener and story. The cyclical nature of the system privileges the eternal rhythm of retelling as much as the accent of a specific time-bound telling.

This mythic rhythm is the heart of culture and democracy, and we must resist the politics of power that seeks to disrupt and erase the act of retelling by claiming an ancient authenticity that will freeze the myth forever. In a mythic rhythm, whether any predefined source of authenticity exists or not is irrelevant; the crux of the issue lies in the extent to which one is personally transformed by each act of retelling. This is why all the great myths push us into the unknown, placing a challenge early in the story that forces the main protagonist to abandon the familiar and comfortable, spend the greater part of the narrative in unknown perilous territory, face danger by calling upon all magic available, be transformed by successful passage through the abyss, and confront, on return, the question of how to apply the gift of this transformation to the place where one belongs. Put this together with the fact that we are embodied beings imbued with the sensory acuity of being alive, containing a powerful and sacred creativity, driven by a tacit awareness of an enchanted world that is beyond our capacity to capture in words, and we realise that the truth of our existence can only be known by the stories we choose to inhabit. Permeate these stories with wonder, retell them in a rhythm that keeps infecting us with wonder, and they will determine who we become.

Just because we are sometimes children who listen to stories with a wonder that drops our jaws and opens our eyes wide does not ensure that we will effectively internalise that wonder. For wonder to continue, the mythic rhythm must continue after we listen to another tell the story. Retelling must sustain even when we are alone. An inner voice within us is a crucial narrator who must also speak if we are to live the truth of our great stories.

Continued from:
The Human within the Architect (1/3)

Continued to:
The Human within the Architect (3/3))

(This article has been extracted from Prem Chandavarkar’s blog Musings on Architecture and Urbanism), presented at the Frame Conclave 2019)

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