Rupert Spira Podcast: Reflections on 'Monet Refuses the Operation'

Rupert Spira Podcast: Reflections on 'Monet Refuses the Operation'
Rupert shares the poem 'Monet Refuses the Operation', by Lisel Mueller.

Doctor, you say there are no haloes

around the streetlights in Paris

and what I see is an aberration

caused by old age, an affliction.

I tell you it has taken me all my life

to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,

to soften and blur and finally banish

the edges you regret I don’t see,

to learn that the line I called the horizon

does not exist and sky and water,

so long apart, are the same state of being.

Fifty-four years before I could see

Rouen cathedral is built

of parallel shafts of sun,

and now you want to restore

my youthful errors: fixed

notions of top and bottom,

the illusion of three-dimensional space,

wisteria separate

from the bridge it covers.

What can I say to convince you

the Houses of Parliament dissolve

night after night to become

the fluid dream of the Thames?

I will not return to a universe

of objects that don’t know each other,

as if islands were not the lost children

of one great continent. The world

is flux, and light becomes what it touches,

becomes water, lilies on water,

above and below water,

becomes lilac and mauve and yellow

and white and cerulean lamps,

small fists passing sunlight

so quickly to one another

that it would take long, streaming hair

inside my brush to catch it.

To paint the speed of light!

Our weighted shapes, these verticals,

burn to mix with air

and change our bones, skin, clothes

to gases. Doctor,

if only you could see

how heaven pulls earth into its arms

and how infinitely the heart expands

to claim this world, blue vapour without end.

Lisel Mueller was born in Germany in 1924 and lived most of her life in the United States until her death at 96 in 2020. And it’s all the more poignant to know that she wrote this poem as she herself was losing her eyesight.

The poem recounts an imaginary conversation between the impressionist painter Claude Monet (1840–1926) and his doctor after his doctor had recommended that Monet have his cataracts removed.

Through Monet’s words, Ms. Mueller interprets his impressionism as implying that what is really out there in nature is far more closely interwoven with the fact of perception than the realists and classical physicists would have us believe. Monet is not painting things, he is painting perception. And perception is always one experience, not many things. There is always just the experience of seeing.

 

Doctor, you say there are no haloes

around the streetlights in Paris

and what I see is an aberration

caused by old age, an affliction.

 

I tell you it has taken me all my life

to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,

to soften and blur and finally banish

the edges you regret I don’t see,

to learn that the line I called the horizon

does not exist and sky and water,

so long apart, are the same state of being.

 

What is from the doctor’s point of view a gradual deterioration in Monet’s ability to see reality, is, in Monet’s view, a revelation. It is a gradual dissolution of his previous inability to recognize the nature of reality, a loss of his belief in the conceptual categories that thought has superimposed upon his experience, fragmenting what he refers to as ‘the same state of being’ into an apparent multiplicity and diversity of objects.

Before the evidence of perception is interpreted by thought, all we see is a play of light, refracted into many colours, but always one thing. The world as normally understood is what we think it is, not what we perceive it is.

 

What can I say to convince you

the Houses of Parliament dissolve

night after night to become

the fluid dream of the Thames?

 

Lisel Mueller evokes the experience of dreams, where the world seems fluid, one thing morphing into another, hinting that the world we experience may be closer to the activity of a great mind rather than a collection of solid, physical particles.

And here she is possibly giving a taste of what was to follow in Cezanne’s painting where he takes this even further, not simply reducing the so-called ‘physical world’ to perception but reducing perception to pure consciousness.

 

I will not return to a universe

of objects that don’t know each other,

as if islands were not the lost children

of one great continent.

 

In these troubled times, she might have added:

 

I will not return to a world

of people that don’t love each other,

as if they were not all the lost children

of one all-encompassing mother.

 

Everything is tending towards its source – not slowly, inexorably disintegrating into the atoms and molecules out of which they are made but dissolving into the consciousness from which they emerge.

All good poems have a power that extends beyond their meaning. Meaning may also be enshrined in the rhythm and lyricism of words. This is why it is important that poetry be read out loud. It also explains why it is so valuable to learn poetry by heart. I consider the learning and reciting of poetry a spiritual practice in its own right.

I often recite this poem to myself and notice its power to affect not only the dissolution of the distinction between discrete objects that we believe we perceive in nature but, by extension, its power to dissolve the primary distinction between self and other. In this context it is hard to distinguish among a poem, a prayer and a hymn.

You can listen to this episode on the Rupert Spira Podcast.

https://rupertspira.libsyn.com/episode-23-reflections-on-monet-refuses-the-operation

For more poetry, why not take a look at Jenny Beal's conversation with Rachna Chowla about Rachna's poety? 

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