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Unfolding Emptiness

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Developing the Negative

Unfolding Emptiness

For this week’s prompt I chose to illustrate emptiness.  Not that I think emptiness is a bad thing.  I consider it more as the “negative space” defined in art as “the space around and between the subject(s).”  In art, empty space can be used to create a silhouette, a background, a balancing counterpoint to an object or group of objects, or a place for the eye to rest.  In life, emptiness can give the mind or heart or emotional body time to rest, recuperate and regroup.  In metaphysics, emptiness is the void from which the spark of life arises and in physics emptiness is the great mystery.

Tao Te Ching: Chapter 11
translated by Ursula K. Le Guin (1998)

Thirty spokes
meet in the hub.
Where the wheel isn’t
is where it’s useful.

Hollowed out,
clay makes a pot.
Where the pot’s not
is where it’s useful.
Cut doors and windows
to make a room.

Where the room isn’t,
there’s room for you.
So the profit in what is
is in the use of what isn’t.

Sometimes we need emptiness to understand the true utility or meaning of a thing, concept or action.  When we first read this story we found it almost devoid of content; but the longer we spend with this seemingly empty story, the more it holds.

Genesis tells us that in the beginning was the sea – … and God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.”  The Judeo-Christian religion is not alone in thinking the world evolved from water; many other theologians, scientists and psychologists agree.  The sea encompasses this story – the story bobs up out of its depths.  This fact alone is enough to make us sit up and take notice.

The watery background of this collage forms the negative space around two objects, the fish and the boat carrying a woman and her sand castle.  You may recall that the sea changes its appearance and mood each time the fisherman makes a new request.  When he approached the shore to ask for the castle, the sea “looked blue and gloomy, though it was very calm.”  The sea here is blue and a bit gloomy and very calm; empty of any kind of disturbance.  It conveys a brooding season of waiting.

My idea of Hell is waiting in an endless line without anything to read.  I really dislike waiting.  So my personal negative space carries undertones of frustration and impatience.  I suppose it’s why I fall in so easily with the idea of “staying in the moment.”   If the moment is all there is, then one never has to wait!  The trick is practicing this sense of presence in the dentist’s waiting room!

The fisherman’s wife is adorned with elaborate seashells.  If you hold a seashell to your ear you can hear the ocean.  What needs to be heard?  Who needs to be listened to?   For me, sitting on an empty beach surrounded by the rhythmic sound of waves is the closest I get to perfect harmony.  I suppose it’s a point of arrival.  At the very edge of the known world there is nowhere left to go, nothing to do except be one with the elements.

Shells are wampum, a form of money in both South American and African history.  The conch, sliced cross-ways, forms a perfect spiral, ancient symbol of rejuvenation and rebirth.  Gods are born from seashells and this is the wife’s ambition – to become a god.  Transcendent religions teach us that it is humankind’s best and truest aspiration to reclaim his/her god nature. To do so usually involves a trip to the underworld, as represented in the traditions of many sea-faring nations.

The wife in my picture is plump, naked and crowned in a rather ridiculous headdress, all of which might indicate empty (endless) greed and desire.  On the other hand she also appears poised, calm and completely self-confident.  Perhaps, her crown connects her to Persephone, Queen of the Underworld.   Perhaps, her actions in the story stem from a profound comprehension of the workings of fate and the sea.

Her castle is made of sand – transient, ephemeral, easily washed away it’s a thing of illusion, yet the child’s pink bucket has been left in plain sight.  Children are naked and truthful in the expression of desire; they know how to play and use their imagination.

The boat, a tool of the fisherman’s trade, has become a frivolous pleasure boat.  If this collage were the fisherman’s dream, we might ask him if his work gives him pleasure.  Is he “following his bliss?” as Joe Campbell would ask.  If so, does the fish bless him by returning him, at the end of the story, to the profession he loves?

The golden fish is as enigmatic as any fish.  Why does he do what he does?  His mouth is open to speak, but he also bleeds from it.  (Remember the bloody streak in the water when the fisherman lets him go free?)  Bleeding is a kind of emptying out and links the story, once again, to the feminine.  It also implies the kind of sacrifice in blood that magic and gods sometime demand.

The wounded Fish/Prince is reminiscent of another story – Parsifal and his encounter with the wounded Fisher King.  In that story, the hero, long dominated by an overprotective mother, doesn’t ask the questions he should ask at the beginning of the story.  As a result he must take a long roundabout adventure that brings him back to where he started.

There is one more story I’m reminded of.  The “Arabian Nights” contains a tale about a fisherman who nets a jar containing djinn who threatens to kill him when the fisherman uncorks his catch. Through trickery, the man talks the djinn back into the jar and then returns the imprisoning container to the sea.  To me, our story seems like a reverse mirror image of that one.  In both, magical creatures, fishermen and the sea are involved and in both stories the characters end up in the same place they began.  As in the tales from “A Thousand and One Nights,” our story contains the seeds of another wonder tale. How and why has the enchanted prince been turned into a fish?

The story of the Fisherman and His Wife contains plenty of emptiness in which one may float questions; lots of room into which imagination may expand …

 

Caught Between

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fisherman and wife 300

Michelle picked the story this week. I only vaguely remembered it, but knowing her attraction to sea creatures and water themes, I happily agreed. It’s an odd little story – more of a ballad than a tale with a constantly repeating refrain. Nothing much happens in the overview- the man is self-deprecating, the fish accommodating, the wife greedy and these three characteristics are repeated without much variation in every verse until, at last, the cycle returns to its starting place. The richness and diversity comes in the wonderful descriptions of detail as each wish is granted. (You can find this story under Monthly Tales on our navigation bar.)

They begin with the bloody streak left behind on the water as the fish, released by the fisherman, dives beneath the waves. The story goes on to describe, gardens, courtyard, animals, golden chairs, the height of ladies-in-waiting, papal crowns, and burning lights. However, even with all that the reader gradually comes to notice that as the desires of the wife become more extravagant, their fulfillment becomes largely the same, differing only in size. The emptiness the woman feels goes unfulfilled because she can only imagine more – not “other.”

The one thing that really changes is the sea and sky. They change in color and degrees of perturbation. The wind varies from calm to raging tempest. The wave lie flat, run in crested rills, roll and crash. The sea and sky reflect the emotions of the humans (including the speaking fish, an enchanted prince) who seem unable to express them in direct speech.

My first collage of the month, the overview, contains the three protagonists and their spokesthing, the sea. The sea is reflected in the background. You see very little of it as yet, when the story opens the sea is simply the context, but even so, one can descry its complexity and movement.

The wife is represented by the naked female torso encased in black fishnet. The fishnet identifies her as the wife of a fisherman. It also stands for the state the characters are stuck in. Each one is trapped in a situation- the woman in her greed, the man in his marriage, and the fish in his enchantment. There is no way out – no stalwart heroine of hero bent on a quest to break into the status quo with new insights or ideas, no helpful fairies or animals willing to help, no drop of compassion to nourish new growth. Remember, the fisherman releases the fish because he wants nothing to do with a talking animal.

The fisherman is caught in the middle between the fish and the wife. He would like to please them both, but finds this an impossible task.

The fish is huge – commanding in its power and presence, but, like any fish, without affect. There is no way to tell what it is thinking. Fish are normally seen as signs of rebirth and regeneration, nevertheless this is not a real fish – he is simply a human decked out as a God. The fish is a traditional sign for Jesus Christ and hence the Church. The Church is also mentioned directly in the story when the wife demands to be made Pope. Maybe, the tale is meant to point a finger at the emptiness of an over-inflated church where once true spirituality made its home.

Finally, notice the tiny fish escaping the mouth of the larger fish. It is there because I wondered what made the “man of the sea” so patient with the demands of the fishwife? Perhaps, he understood her greed? After all, at the beginning of the story we find him caught on a baited hook.