On Self, the Spirit and Creativity

By Louis A. Ruprecht Jr. 

“The self must leave so that spirit may enter.” 

That’s a profound statement about the creative heart of the artistic process.  It’s also a keen insight into the elusive world of many religions. The trick in the modern period, so it seems, is to find a way to combine these two worlds, these two forms of creative epiphany. 

Few artists from the last century reflected with greater profundity on the cosmic convergence between the parallel spirit-worlds of art and religion than the avant-garde filmmaker, Maya Deren (1917-1961). 

Deren was born in Kiev, but was raised in Syracuse, New York.  She studied literature, especially the Symbolist poets, first at Syracuse University, then later at NYU and Smith College.  It was in New York that she got involved both in radical politics and in modern dance.  Even then, it would seem, Maya Deren understood art to be a form of radical politics and an experiment in radical religious vision.  She eventually landed on film as the medium best suited to her own expansive visions, and she began making a number of important short films in an explosively creative period that began in 1946 and lasted until roughly 1951. 

This burst of creative energy coincided with her increasing fascination with Haitian drums and Haitian dance; the unifying theme in all of these interests and endeavors was the dogged pursuit of new vision, a subtly “un-selved” way of seeing. 

Early in this same period, Maya Deren was awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship in 1947, which enabled her to make several trips to Haiti, with the express intention of making a film about Haitian dance forms.  It was there that she became fascinated by the ritual practices of Haitian Vodou, most notably the phenomenon of spirit possession. 

Then something strange happened.  Actually, a number of strange things happened to Maya Deren in Haiti. The more her interests shifted from dance to spirit possession, the less capable she felt of imagining the film.  She became less and less able to see the film in her mind’s eye. After considerable effort and frustration, Deren abandoned the film she had intended to make and decided, for reasons that were never clearly explained, that the only medium suited to this new work was an old medium: writing

Maya Deren, who had by then gained some notoriety in the intimate circles of the New York avant garde, abandoned filmmaking and wrote a book about Haitian Vodou, instead.  (One point of clarification: an edited sampling of Deren’s Haitian film footage was released after her death, with voiceover commentary and music composed by her husband, Teiji Ito.) 

That book, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, was published in1953 (the film bears the same name), and it begins with a fascinating thesis: “Myth is the twilight speech of an old man to a boy.”

Such “twilight speech” comes, not from an author, but rather from that twilight.  Maya Deren saw in such a “mythological” mentality what probably only an experimental artist could see: namely, the novel forms of memory that aim at making meaning rather than recording events.

All the old men begin at the beginning.  Their recitals always speak first of the origin of life.  They start by inventing this event which no man has witnessed, which still remains mystery.  They initiate the history of their race with a fiction.  For, whether it was the first in the sense of time, life is, for all men, firs of miracles in the sense of prime.  This is a fact.  Myth is the facts of the mind made manifest in a fiction of matter.  (21)

Clearly, Deren saw herself as a myth-maker in her films, in this precise sense.  She placed the facts of the mind (not her own mind) in a fiction of celluloid.  In short, mythmakers see what they see most clearly, when they get their selves out of the way.

But whereas Divine Horsemen begins with this poetic rumination on the mentality of myth, it ends with a far more disturbing description of the experience of spirit-possession.  That chapter, entitled “The White Darkness,” sets itself the impossible task of describing Deren’s own experience of spirit possession at a birthday ritual hosted by one of her Haitian friends.  She found the experience physically distasteful and psychologically traumatic, and in any case, she could not describe the actual possession event, which neither she nor any other Haitian can remember afterwards.  When a “horse” has been “ridden” by an African spirit, or loa, he or she never recalls it afterwards.  They have simply gone elsewhere, for a time.

And so Deren dances around the possession event, combining her previous interests in poetry and in dance to create a supremely artful mode of expressing the inexpressible.  Her conclusion (italicized in the original) is compelling, and is addressed to this precise point of aesthetic amnesia:

To understand that the self must leave if the loa is to enter, is to understand that one can not be man and god at once (249).

So the lesson in all of this, a lesson that linked her lifelong interest in artistic creativity to this late-comer’s interest in spiritual practice, was the precise point with which I began: the self must vacate the space that the spirit wishes to inhabit.  The ultimate act of creativity is born of the self’s disappearance, for a time.  That is the dirty little secret of the artist’s studio, the spiritual experience of vacating, or rather of transcending, the self.

Deren returned to New York after this profound and life-changing Haitian experience, and while she was not as productive filmically, her apartment became a regular fixture in the Manhattan art-scene.  She was poor, but selflessly hospitable, and she was a force to be reckoned with, in her own mind and under the influence of the spirit.  She died impoverished and under-nourished, of a mysterious brain hemorrhage in October of 1961; there were even whispers that this was due to a tempting misuse of the power of the spirit-world.

A more contemporary and equally brilliant experimental filmmaker, Stan Brakhage (1933-2003) encapsulated the mystery lying at the heart of Deren’s meteoric career this way, in 1989:

How can a little girl born in Russia and reared in Syracuse, New York, find happiness as a Voodoun priestess in Greenwich Village?  That question sort of sums up the story of Maya Deren, who was one of the most complex and legendary personalities among independent filmmakers of the 1940s and 1950s.  (Stan Brakhage, Film at Wit’s End, 91)

 It’s a brilliant question, and Stan Brakhage is uniquely positioned to pose it.

Brakhage himself had some profound things to say about the un-selved vision which non-narrative film can provide. He celebrated the gaze of the “unegoed” camera, and he often played with the punning notion that the “I is an eye.” Such an “eye” sees best when the “I” gets out of the way.  At some point, when he had digested this point better, Brakhage stopped signing his films (and then, he naughtily adds, he felt just fine copyrighting them).

There is only one thing about Deren that Brakhage’s point misses.  I don’t think it’s right to say that Deren found happiness in the practice of Vodou.  She was never very interested in pursuing happiness, least of all in the context of art and religion.  Art and religion are for new vision and radical turnings of the mind, not happiness.  Spiritual practice was, for Deren, about the enactment of mythic truths in a fiction of matter.  It was an elaborate art of letting go, a daring flirtation with soulful disappearance that enables creation to be.

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