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PETER CLOTHIER

THE BANDAGED PLACE:
CONFESSIONS OF A
RECOVERING INTELLECTUAL


For many years I counted myself among those who reject the notion of art as a potential source of healing. I saw both the practice and the appreciation of art as a largely formal and intellectual exercise: a game of the mind, a game capable of infinite richness, perhaps, but nonetheless a game. And I will confess that, privately, I would judge those who saw it otherwise as a lesser species, lacking my superior intellectual resources.

How wrong I was! Perhaps it’s the advance in age that has weakened the brain, but I now find myself increasingly disinterested in art that is not in some way able to help me feel more fully human; and if that’s not healing, I don’t know what is. “Don’t turn away,” the great 13th century Sufi poet Mowlana Jalaluddin Rumi wrote. “Keep your eyes on the bandaged place. That’s where the light enters you.”



Richard Serra, “Double Torqued
Ellipse II,” 1998, weatherproof steel,
11’9” x 28’6” x 19’6”. Photo: Dirk Reinartz.
Keep your eyes on the bandaged place. In art--and for me in writing--I understand that to mean working in those areas where we are most exposed and vulnerable. And I’ve come to understand that being vulnerable does not necessarily mean being soft and squishy. An extreme case: Richard Serra’s overwhelmingly powerful Torqued Ellipses in corten steel reveal my vulnerable humanity if I dare to interact with them. They remind me of another “bandaged place” in my own psyche, of my own smallness, my petty envy of those who manage to be grandiose, to speak with a loud and clamorous voice, to defy the decorous rules of etiquette and self-effacement that constrict my vision. I am equally sure--though without needing to explore the psychological reasons for it--that these grandiloquent statements spring from some “bandaged place” in their maker, revealing itself through the work. In this context, the artist’s humanity speaks to mine, and healing of a kind takes place for both of us. On the artist’s side it is in the process of creating, for the view it is in the engagement.

Nor, of course, does this looking into ourselves mean “New Age,” with all that buzzword implies for me about vague spirituality and fuzzy thinking. Go back to Shakespeare. No mealy-mouth there. Go to Michelangelo’s David, or his Moses. How much about strong, yet deeply vulnerable masculinity can we learn from spending time with them? How much about youth and age? How much about human resilience, and fears of our own fragility? How much soul-healing do we experience in their proximity?

Keep your eyes on the bandaged place. How much I wanted to avoid seeing my own! The other day, inspired by a passage in Tara Brach’s book, Radical Acceptance, I started making a list of those lessons about myself and the world that I had learned in childhood, beliefs I held to be immutable truths only because I had lived with them for the better part of my life without ever stopping to question them. For example, the idea that the at times painful reality of life should be suppressed in favor of polite appearances, or that embarrassment must be avoided at all costs. (Remember that hilarious--and for me tellingly poignant--speech in the movie A Fish Called Wanda, when John Cleese, arch-Brit, is discovered butt naked in a place he has no right to be and explains the Englishman’s agonized fear of embarrassment to Jamie Lee Curtis’ totally shameless American wench?) The hidden wound uncovered in that bit of art illustrates the dubious law: Never, ever risk looking foolish. It took me years to unlearn the other “truth” that all problems in life can be solved by the application of rational thought and action. Or that others always come first. Or that if you permit the smallest chink in your emotional armor, others will inflict pain, so protect yourself and let no one get too close. It is art that puts me in touch with these spaces within myself to which I am now drawn.

You may not share my lessons, but you will have your own. We carry them about with us and, without the aid of continuous vigilance, we tend to respond to the events of our lives reactively, according to the untrustworthy dictates of unexplored broken places. It’s instructive sometimes to pause and make a list of them. What are the messages I received from the adult world when I was growing up? How many of them do I allow to color my perception of the world today, and how do they show up?

After a half-century of 12-step teachings permeating our culture we know that these spaces cause pain, that they can make escape and denial all too often the better part of valor. As creative people that which we close off tends to at some point shut us down without our knowledge or consent. No matter how casual or innocently unintended, a father’s suggestion that we’re dumb or lazy can cling to the inside of our head like gum on the underside of a school desk, sabotaging every effort to escape what we come to see as our stupidity or sloth in later years.

So these are what I call the “bandaged places,” where the wound is patched over but not yet healed. We protect them by covering them up--forgetting that frequently a wound will heal much faster if we expose it to the air. When we learn to keep an eye on them, as Rumi suggests, we begin to discover their positive effects. They can be our allies rather than our enemies.

This perspective is lost on many of us because these ideas are not taught or discussed when we are in school. What’s taught in the schools, for the most part, continues to be the tough line: intellectual discipline, competition, control of the medium, and a hard head for business. What’s too readily passed over--perhaps because it is so hard to teach--is the why of it all. Why do we do what we do, in a world that is increasingly inhospitable to the creative production of all but a fortunate few? The only convincing answer I’ve been able to come up with is that my creative work comes out of an inner need that is too compelling to ignore.

If I find myself paying more and more attention to the bandaged places, these days, and gravitating toward creative decisions that reveals them, it’s because I realize more and more that the “work” is precisely to reveal to myself my own humanity, and secondarily to share it more and more with others. As Rumi tells us, this is where the light enters us. And the more I’m able to find those places, deep inside, and let the light in to illuminate the shadows, the more I seem able to communicate with others. It’s in our anger, in our pain, grief, and joy that we find common ground. So I aim to write words in which everyone can find a piece of him- or herself.

The benefit is that in shedding light, I also discover what has been holding me back. In working with artists over the years, I know I share this experience with others. Without our knowledge or permission, those bandaged places can impose their limits on what we have to say, or how we say it. Do we deserve to command attention or respect? Only if we believe we do. How many of us have been reduced to silence, not by our lack of creative potential, but by some hidden inner fear that puts a chokehold on our ability to speak, to express, to create.

Which brings me to one other lesson that I learned in childhood. It came in the form of an adage now pretty much out of use, but which was much bandied in my youth: “Children should be seen and not heard.” An absurd cliché, and though often said jokingly, I cam to accept it as a truth: I should not be heard. Thus, I have been quiet all my life. Only with the realization of that lesson lurking in some deep layer of my unconscious mind have I come to understand clearly that I need to speak out loud. And when the silence returns--as it inevitably will--along with the self-doubt and despair that accompany it, I find it helpful to remember to keep my eyes on the bandaged place. It’s where the light enters.