“The task is to restore continuity between the refined and intensified forms of experience that are works of art and the everyday events, doings, and sufferings that are universally recognized to constitute experience.”
—John Dewey, Art as Experience
We asked members of the Nassau Weekly community to send us items that they thought epitomized beauty. They offered us 11 submissions in total: poems, music, paintings. Original reflections. A fungus.
We read, listened to, and looked at the submissions without any prior knowledge of them while taking in a sunny afternoon in the red plastic chairs of the Forbes College backyard. Here are our findings.
I descend the 19 stairs connecting the first and second floors of the Forbes Main Inn and exit into the backyard. I am besieged by a slew of constituent elements, together composing a scene. Red plastic chairs, arranged into clusters numbering anywhere from one to five, spread throughout the rectangular patio and lawn. People talking: social distancing hit-or-misses. The sun is shining: I begin to feel hot. I take off my jacket and approach the mess of brown hair floating above one of the red plastic backs of the red plastic chairs.
The sun always brings me out of myself. For the past two months, although I would wrap myself in blankets and scarves and woolen socks, I could never put on enough layers between me and the world. But today, the light wraps me in a film of sweat, and although my eyes close in the heat of the sun, I do not need to see to feel I am a part of the backyard. The red lawn chairs pattern my thighs with their plastic slabs, and the bustling wind delivers the chatter of others to me. I hear a body drop into the seat next to me, and I open my eyes.
Polysyndeton underscores the lengths to which the speaker must go to attend his otherwise all-white college. Allusions to real Harlem landmarks remind us that this is not fiction. Frantic em dashes and parentheses reflect his internal turmoil as he navigates his inherently illogical and conflicting experience. Hypophora suggests that he has it within himself to find the answers.
These are my thoughts as I read Langston’s Hughes’s “Theme for English B”. I like the poem because I can trace these things in it, because Hughes’s writing is unapologetically plain and thus exceedingly approachable, because he lets me see how the sausage gets made. I wonder, though, how the speaker would feel about me pulling him apart, about my insistence on analyzing the language of his existence.
Listening to Joanna Newsom is like looking out your bedroom window and finding a roaring waterfall. In the fall, as I dawdled in my hometown, Joanna transported me somewhere new. I was King Ludwig I of Bavaria, a pearl diver, an astrophysicist. And here, with the birds chirping and wind whirring, the backyard has become the smiling accompaniment to her tales of war and wastelands. Here, I understand that what she croons is truth: Life is thundering blissful towards death / In a stampede / Of his fumbling green gentleness.
I have no vocabulary for music, especially classical music. Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 Adagietto offers me nothing to latch onto: without lyrics, it is entirely inaccessible. I cannot even name all of the instruments. It spurns my advances, refuses to let me pick it apart. Instead, it decides the terms of our engagement. The sound crushes me; my battery of enjambment and syntax and diction is futile against it. And so I just listen. We are speaking different languages, Mahler and I, but he also knows mine, and suddenly, words appear in my mind: sweeping, probing, generous. Words that Mahler teaches me, words I couldn’t have formed myself. I have no conception of “theme” or “argument,” no sense of what might come next, but still, as I listen, I hear him communicating. And so I keep listening.
Isn’t it wonderful, I thought, how the wind rises when the music crescendoes? I can’t tell if my gooseflesh is from the air or the orchestra, the feeling is a secular kind of miracle—one whose sacredness stems from chance instead of godly plans. I have never heard this piece before, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, Movement 4, and I have never heard this wind before. And just as I do not try to control the wind, I do not try to anticipate the music—the rise of the trumpets and the lull of the violins.
Lauren asks me what I think about Tchaikovsky, and I freeze. I only have more words—violent, starting, conciliatory. Were this a Zoom precept, I would tab over and pull up Wikipedia so that I could sound informed, but she’s looking right at me and my laptop is in my bag.
A remark from my urban studies professor flashes through my mind: “Students are commodities; you go to Princeton to add to your market value so that you will sell for a higher price when it’s time to get a job.”
Is that why I feel the need to regurgitate the insights of others rather than venturing my own opinion? Do I only seek the veneer of knowledge to make me a more attractive good? To increase my stock?
But then there’s the fungus. Fat, orange, tree-clinging, and proudly impervious to my intellectualizing impulse. There is no Wikipedia entry on the fungus; with the fungus, the only meaning is the one I conjure up. The fungus couldn’t care less about my market value.
Sam is talking when my phone buzzes. I tell myself: wait, listen, be here. But my mind has already wandered, and I glance down at the notification. It’s a reminder about an English essay, which I had managed to forget for the past hour. My mind wields its wandering like a sword, and it cuts apart the rest of my day into a stack of tasks. 10 minutes showering, 50 minutes working, 5-minute nap. 50 minutes working 10 minutes break 50 minutes working… When had time become a precious commodity, and when had I become hell-bent on deriving the most production from my day? The fungus knows how to go about time. Time accumulates, the fungus grows.
I wish I could step into the fungus’s world. The canopy of trees dwarfing me, I could move without the burden of expectation, and I would take the least efficient path home. But I suppose this afternoon is a glimpse into what the fungus’s world would feel like: we are not buying, not worrying, not vying to mine the world for some selfish profit. We are simply letting the time roll by.
“Can we even understand it if it’s only like a dozen lines out of some long-ass poem?” I wave my hand dismissively at the three-stanza excerpt of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “In Memoriam A.H.H.”
“I didn’t even notice it was an excerpt. There seems to be a whole life contained here. As it progresses the speaker stands at a house, at the beginning of life, in the first stanza. Then he creeps to the door—that is, he dies. And then, finally, ‘the noise of life begins again.’”
I see now, amid the chirping birds and the red plastic chairs, that there is much more understanding to be found in the mind of another, equally uninformed Forbes first-year than in the highbrow allure of Wikipedia.
Sam reads the world as if every object is a book waiting to be revealed. We are looking at a painting, Mrs. George Swinton by John Singer Sargent; the portrait of the regal Mrs. Swinton invokes nothing particular in me, but Sam begins to untangle the painting from left to right. Look at her hands, he says, see how the one placed on the chair is stable, defined, but the one on her hip seems to shimmer. I scan the painting through Sam’s eyes, and Mrs. Swinton begins to come to life for me. This is when I understand that every person’s mind is a world within itself, and what is friendship but a project in walking the well-trodden paths of another’s mind.
The setting sun introduces a chill to the scene. Reluctantly, people gather their blankets; they linger at the doorways before stepping back into the building. We, too, cannot stay outside: there are papers to write, families back home to call, other lives to bump into. But the afternoon was warm, and kind, and full of beauty. There’s not much else to ask for, to be contained in a single afternoon. The door to the backyard clicks behind us. We make plans for lunch the next day.