In the subways of New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) advertising is ubiquitous. Paid advertising lines the walls of subway cars. Ads hang overhead and lurk around at eye level. Entrepreneurs hijack the paid advertising by attaching their own flyers and stickers to the glossy surface of the “legitimate” ads.
Up until last year, the MTA provided a break from the onslaught of advertising with their Poetry in Motion series. On quite a few occasions, I’ve found myself nailed to my seat, pondering life and artistry, after reading a few lines of a poem. The Poetry in Motion series managed to liven up my daily commute while sneaking in the spiritual benefits of art, even when I wasn’t looking for it. Recently, the MTA switched gears. They replaced the poetry with a newer series called Train of Thought featuring quotes from history, philosophy, literature, and science. This month a quote from German philosopher Immanuel Kant grabbed my attention: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, nothing entirely straight can be built.”
There are various translations of this quote, yet all amount to the same thing: we humans were born crooked, imperfect, fallible, therefore nothing that is of us may be perfect, infallible, “entirely straight.” I’ve thought of this often in regard to political constructs, politicians, and social experiments. Many a political career, public initiative, or alternative group has been built from a pure heart. Sometimes those efforts shoot straight for a very long time (others collapse immediately), but inevitably, they all veer off course in one way or another. Relationships struggle under the weight of Kant’s observation as well. Some in a glaringly obvious way, others in subtle but insistent ways. The drift away from pure intention cannot be avoided. It is our birthright as humans to veer, sway, and diverge. It’s what makes us human.
During the week I was mulling over this Kant quote, a friend sent me a video of Al Green singing “For the Good Times.” The 1972 Soul Train performance presented, for me, a fascinating mix between the mundane nature of humanity and the sublime power of art to transcend an individual person’s limitations.
Watching Al Green, I was instantly aware of humanity’s “crooked timber”: from his slightly mussed Afro to his facial expressions—sometimes pained, sometimes wise, sometimes devilish, but always human—from his gold-heavy wrists and fingers to his dogged-to-the-point-of-annoying repetition of the phrase “Lord have mercy,” Green is clearly a fallible and vulnerable being. And yet, the lyrics, the expression, the emotions he pours into the song had me transfixed. He seems to weave in and out of being an average man and a supremely blessed creator casting spells with his craft. Somehow, in the thrall of the creative act, the crookedness of the timber becomes irrelevant. Out of that creative effort, perfection arrives—and it shoots straight to the heart.
In the crux of creation, the flawed nature of humanity is not a deficit but the motor that powers our momentary escape from the crooked confines of our timber. The space between the mundane and the sublime is the place where art is made. At a recent concert peopled with musicians I see around town, I found myself marveling, once again, at the juxtaposition of the mundane and the sublime. It was a great night of artmaking: the musicians were sizzling, the vocalist was hot, and their sound was tight. Even as I was transported by their performance, I remembered the mundane moments of their lives. I remembered seeing them dragging their equipment down the street to hop on the subway because they didn’t have cab fare; seeing them during the a.m. commute, faces scrubbed clean of makeup, wearing unremarkable cable-knit sweaters and dull auras.
As they rocked it out onstage, I imagined a split screen—their “real” lives on one side: the money problems, the love problems, the depressions, the lack of motivation, the self-pity and the self-hatred that we all deal with as human beings. And on the other side, the sizzling heat of their talent, the raw ferocity with which they attacked the music and shared the vibes with the audience. It is certainly a sublime experience to witness what happens when ten artists (or even just one artist) gather together in the name of spirit and inspiration and show just how straight the timber of humanity can shoot.
At the end of the day, it’s always there—that crooked timber—but our capacity to create the sublime is ever present as well. Are we irregular, inconsistent creatures? Yes. Yet we possess perfection through our creations, inventions, and “superhuman” feats. There is no point in trying to BE perfect, that is absolutely impossible. We were born of crooked timber and shall die in possession of it as well. But throughout our lives, we can be something else, too. We can put ourselves in the nexus of creation, make things with these wonderful minds God has given us, and be—as often as possible—at our most beautiful.
Be well. Be love(d).
April 22, 2009