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The Cemeteries Are Empty

The cemeteries are empty No movement underground The is no one left for me Down in Johnsontown I’ve learned the art of being lonely Just a painting on the wall

Saad Omar, The Swan Song

In 2010, I took a trip to Chicago to visit the Art Institute’s new section on Matisse, titled ‘Radical Invention’. While there, I stumbled upon a large biographical work on the early 20th century artist and his philosophy of art. Included therein was a dialogue between Matisse and one of his students.

The master and disciple seemed to disagree on the proper way to approach an object of painting, a fish. Matisse’s student wanted to render the fish according to his own creativity and artistic style. The teacher wanted his disciple to stand aloof as an observer and hearken for that moment when the fish reveals its true reality to the artist within his own self; he wanted him to be a listener, not a voice who speaks on behalf of life.

After a lengthy debate, Matisse sought to inculcate in his student a powerful message that circumvents their relationship as teacher and student. He informed his disciple of Cezanne’s recommendation to any beginning artist: that they should visit the Louvre and stand solemnly at each and every work of art and hearken respectfully until the deceased spirit of the artist speaks through the traces and accepts the desiring seeker as a student. Thenceforth, Cezanne states, the life of this beginning artist should be spent seeking to bring his newly found teacher’s vision to life.

Indeed, this seems to have been a lofty spiritual taste among the artists in pre-modernity. For it is said that at his death bed, Leonardo Da Vinci embraced the Mona Lisa tightly to his bosom. As Da Vinci had breathed his last, the painting was left in his grasp for a while, so the artist’s spirit can fully permeate his work.

At the highest level of perception, we might say that the modern man visits museums in order to heighten his/her artistic sensibility. Certainly, very few would say that they regard such an architectural enclosure of relics and artifacts as a cemetery and seance-space where they can commune with the dead. Be that as it may, there is another aspect of museums that is delicately interwoven with both modernity and the spirits of the dead.

As Louis Ruprecht mentions in “Caught between Enlightenment and Romanticism”, the idea of a national public museum was a necessary catalyst in the formation of nationhood and a national identity. Although the Parthenon in Greece was no longer the site of ritual sacrifices to the heavenly Zeus, it was still a space of a different sacrality; one where memories are reconstructed through the relics of the past in order to define what it means to be Greek. In this way, the gods of Mount Olympus continue to shape the daily lives of the masses.

From this point of view, the modern museum appears to be further possessed by the spirits of the dead. As Engseng Ho informs us in Graves of Tarim, the descendants of the Muslim saints in the Indian subcontinent return to the lands of their ancestors in modern day Hadhramawt, Yemen in order to negotiate their identity at the entombed flesh of their ‘pious predecessors’.

As Derrida also informs us in Of Hospitality,  l’etranger (the ‘foreigner’ from a ‘foreign’ ‘abroad’) can only find serenity and identity at a place of death, not birth. This is so because for a mobile traveler, only death can provide the necessary stasis for reflection.

This type of identity, one that goes beyond a simple social affiliation, but rather an inner gnosis is also precisely what Muhyi al-Din Ibn al-ʿArabi (d. 1240) perceives to be the quintessence of Hajj (pilgrimage), as he eloquently states in his poetry:

“And at ʿArafat, I 'araftu (knew) the One ... You seek and so I became impatient”

The name 'Arafat becomes, for the Andalusian mystic, a linguistic pun of ontological proportions: it is called 'Arafat precisely because it is the spatial sine qua non of m'arifa (Gnosis). From the temple mount, ʿArafat, mount Olympus and the hearkening heart of a beginning artist at the Louvre, the spirits of the dead seem to gain more agency after death. Their form is no longer constrained within a static flesh, but rather has flexibly pierced and overwhelmed the imagination of every interlocutor who seeks them in the world of the living.

As my dear friend and artist of language, Saad Omar, so beautifully composed in the lyrics mentioned above, “the cemeteries are [indeed] empty”. This evocative adjective, empty, as found in the modern Greek adeios, comes to mean “free from fear” or “unoccupied”. The spirits of the dead are incessantly moving in silence, to and fro. These are motions that, as Saad informs us, take place underground, beyond the narrative of the painting or sculpture but just at the threshold of the meta-narrative of the spirit of the artist that brings the work to life.

Perhaps Saad and Cezanne are also in agreement that just when the seeker has gone on the pilgrimage, mastered the ‘art of being lonely’ and become a solitary ‘painting on the wall’ ... only then will they be able to commune with the spirits of creativity and find the master within and without.

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