The Roman Pantheon

I gazed up at the oculus while families and lovers whipped me around as they snapped their self-portraits. Soon I was dizzy and stupid with tears in my eyes because I could not begin to comprehend how such a dome was constructed back in the year 120, and I mourned because such a sublime thing would never be built again. We no longer build to humble our pride.

The world is overheating, its seas rising while corporations prey upon the sick and weary. Pent-up vibrations of war fill the air and we have a vicious idiot in the highest office, determined to hold our thoughts hostage. Meanwhile we fight amongst ourselves, slinging hashtags and hysteria. As our cruel politics and callous technologies lead us to become ever more factionalized and tribalized, we need new unifying myths—and quickly. Give us new points of worship beyond the rickety fictions of free markets, nations, and garbled gospels. New gods. This isn’t a terribly original or feasible idea, but for a moment it didn’t seem so improbable when the first track on the new album by Leyland Kirby drifted into my headphones.

Here comes a heartbeat drum, thumping in the distance like a half-remembered b-side by The Ronettes or The Crystals, a vintage rhythm slowly falling to pieces in the ether while plaintive strings rise, as if mourning the death of reason. Like a heavily sedated love song from the hit parade of a more dignified age, Leyland Kirby’s We, so tired of all the darkness in our lives is a reassuring soundtrack for these undignified times. Dig that title. This album is an unexpected reminder that music can harmonize with—and perhaps even momentarily sooth—the crazy thoughts we’re forced to carry these days, if only for a moment or two. The dark yearning of a track like ‘Consolation’ leaves me thinking of a phrase from Will Durant: “We are choked with news and starved of history.”

Leyland Kirby – Consolation

We, so tired of all the darkness in our lives | More

I stay awake into the small hours, measuring margins and tinkering with code while playing moody records. I remember the night I hit 20,000 words with Miles Davis on the hi-fi. Vinyl sounds better. More importantly, it cements my memories. Each record on my shelf is a snapshot, a photo album. A digital file reminds me of nothing. The value of any collection is not the record sleeve, book, or commemorative spoon, but the memories these things conjure. A certain time of life or seasonal mood. Maybe a grey afternoon. In addition to sense-memory, vinyl demands patience and care. An album ends with silence. It requires a dust-free environment. It’s an impractical format but so are most of the fine things in life.

Niland, California

Niland, California. Half-past midnight on the edge of the Salton Sea. “Everything is a mystery and I’m just a small part of it,” she said. “Maybe that’s all I need to know.”

Last night I stepped away from the screen and looked at the stars, which is something I rarely do. But why not look at the stars every night? What could be more important? As I sought out the belt of Orion, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the desire to know the language of constellations, the location of celestial bodies. It seems a tragedy to go through life not knowing the names of the lights overhead.

Perhaps I’ve overlooked the sky because there is a touch of sadness whenever I watch the stars. I cannot help but search for my parents up there. Although I do not believe in heaven, I remember the people I lost each time I stare into the night, obeying a hardwired impulse rooted in the magical thinking of the ancients, a muscle memory beyond language or thought. Here is a sublime image of the afterlife from Posidonius, written two thousand years ago: “The virtuous rise to the stellar sphere and spend their time watching the stars go round.”

There is also consolation in the words of Plotinus, who believed the soul joins the stars because “the heavenly bodies naturally inspire and make man less lonely in this physical universe.” Plotinus was one of the last philosophers to celebrate beauty before it became coupled with temptation in the Western mind. “A man may be a cheerful pessimist or a melancholy optimist,” writes Bertrand Russell. “Plotinus is an admirable example of the second.” Living in the final days of the Roman Empire, Plotinus turned away from “the spectacle of ruin and misery in the actual world to contemplate an eternal world of goodness and beauty.”

Difficult times can lead to otherworldly philosophy.

To know the mind of the divine, said Plotinus, “we must study our own soul when it is most God-like.” Amidst the daily howl of opinion, snark, and outrage, these spiritualized encounters are often rare glimmers, fleeting moments of ecstasy in its strictest sense: ecstasy as a Greek word that describes standing outside of one’s body. To be elsewhere. To escape the self. And once freed, where else would you go but towards the stars? Thus the painter and the poet’s fascination with nature, their desire to name a sensation that can only be described in terms of trees reaching for the sky and rivers pouring into oceans before joining the clouds.

“When we are thus in contact with the divine, we cannot reason or express the vision in words; this comes later.” Plotinus’s meditation on the heavens provides one of the most elegant descriptions of the creative impulse that I have encountered. In our rare moments of communion with the stars, he says, the soul “contemplates the inward realm of essence and wishes to produce something as like it as possible,” something that can be seen “by looking without instead of looking within” such as “a composer who first imagines his music, and then wishes to hear it performed by an orchestra.”

Standing outside tonight, peering beyond the lights of the city, I do my best to listen to these echoes from the ancients who knew how to listen to the sky. I’d like to recover some kind of wonder in the digital age.

Further reading: Posidonius; Bertrand Russell, The History of Western Philosophy; Plotinus.

What is the role of fiction in an age of perpetual outrage, engineered distraction, and vicious governance? After returning to the monochrome worlds of Brave New World, 1984, and Fahrenheit 451 in the wake of Trump’s installation, I began re-reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which might be the most urgent dystopian vision due to America’s increasingly ecclesiastical hatred of women. Written in 1985, Atwood’s novel describes a militarized theocracy built from the dogma, rituals, and prejudices of the past and present. Women are stripped of all rights and some are rendered into, in the recent words of one Oklahoma lawmaker, ‘hosts’ for the unborn. Science is rejected. Writing is banned. Yet the most chilling dimension of the novel might be the narrator’s account of how this oppression and violence became the status quo while everybody was asleep at the wheel. What fills the vacuum when the institutions of democracy become feeble, when we prefer to focus on the self? “Whatever is going on is as usual,” says Offred, shortly after seeing the bodies of doctors dangling from the city’s walls. “Even this is as usual, now.”

My thoughts keep returning to one particular line: “The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others.” This sentence nags in the margins while I compulsively scroll through the day’s digitized outrage, perplexed by the dogged faith that these technologies are doing us any measure of good. The words of Ray Bradbury’s fire chief in Fahrenheit 451 come to mind: “Chock them so full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving.”

Atwood extends this idea of ambient distraction into tragedy. Not only is information overload a means of social control, it is a privilege that is often not recognized until it is too late, until it becomes clear that our fates are inseparable from the victims in the day’s headlines: “How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable,” says Offred, remembering the days when she had the freedom to spend her mornings in bed, lazily flipping through the newspaper’s reports of murder and terror. “They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives. We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories.”

Perhaps the task is to close the gaps between these stories.

Further reading: The Handmaid’s Tale; Fahrenheit 451; Oklahoma Lawmakers Want Men to Approve All Abortions.

I spent the month of February in Iceland as part of the NES Artist Residency, where I worked in a little café by the Arctic sea in the town of Skagaströnd, population 498. There was no snow when I arrived because we’ve ruined the Gulf Stream. Instead there was an endless twilight that saturated the red rooftops, black rock, and patches of yellow moss. Although I remain committed to black-and-white photography for reasons of simplicity and accuracy, Iceland demands color.

Watching the ships rocking in the harbor, I began cultivating elaborate fantasies of trade winds and oil lamps and drowsing beneath a wool blanket while a radio murmured about barometric pressure and shipping lanes. Iceland was an ideal place for imagining other possible lives. Sometimes the clouds and mist hung so low they erased the boundary between land and sky.

I visited a cozy library lined with books, encyclopedias, and manuals that had been donated by an ambitious collector who passed away in the 1970s. The librarian whistled along with “Manic Monday” while shuffling through papers, a sound that blurred with the wind beating at the windows.And my god, the wind. It knocked us over as we raced along the sea, drilling into our ears and slapping us across the cheeks and sending our voices flying from our mouths. It was a wind that rewired your nervous system, a sensation that could drive a person mad.

The Northern Lights dance, which I did not know until I saw them. They darted across the sky, blooming and unfurling in patterns that I could not detect, and it was a reminder of the ancient philosophers who believed souls must live in the sky because “the stars make us less lonely.” A garbled line from a Godspeed You Black Emperor song looped through my head as I watched: The sky’s on fire, and there’s no driver at the wheel—and it seemed impossible that we would waste our time down here arguing about money, imaginary borders, and local gods.

A road trip through the northwest peninsulas reminded me of my peculiar relationship with nature. I admire nature in relationship to the manmade—the park in the city, the lone stop sign in the desert—but landscapes without any place for the human overwhelm me in the Burkean sense of the sublime: a display of time and scale that I cannot absorb without feeling overwhelmed. Perhaps this reaction was exacerbated by reading Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, a summary of the inevitable trauma of climate change and how, just as the individual must reconcile himself to death, so must our species. And so many surreal vistas in Iceland amplified this sensation of living in end times, an effect further enhanced by a series of brutalist churches that looked as if they belonged to alien gods. With pools of boiling mud, sulphur coloring the air, green light streaking through the night, and columns of steam pouring into the sky, it was not difficult to imagine the need to invent gods and myths for an explanation.

When Abbot Suger walked into the Basilica of Saint Denis in 1144 and saw its Platonic geometries, stained glass, and pointed arches, he said, “It seems to me I see myself dwelling, as it were, in some strange region of the universe.” This sentence came to mind often during my time in Iceland, and I hope the remainder of these photographs capture some of this.

Further Reading and Listening: Godspeed You Black Emperor, ‘The Dead Flag Blues’; Edmund Burke, The Sublime and Beautiful; Roy Scranton, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene; the Basilica of St. Denis.

Iceland at 35,000 feet

The choral drift of Popol Vuh’s ‘Aquirre I Lacrima di Rei’ sounds like glaciers, mist, and devotion. After listening to this song six times in a row it occurred to me that the word ‘theology’ means the ‘logic of god’—which seemed rather profound at 35,000 feet.

Popol Vuh – Aguirre I Lacrima di Rei

Aguirre, the Wrath of God; Ohm, 1972 | Spotify | More information

Meanwhile the president’s seething need for adulation continues to blow through the nation’s skull like a playground shriek that will never end. “Usually the megalomaniac, whether insane or nominally sane, is the product of some excessive humiliation,” wrote Bertrand Russell in The Conquest of Happiness, a meditation on the anxieties of modern life first published in 1930—and a reminder that today’s agitations, while amplified into a blinding glare by our screens, stem from the age-old conflict between fact and delusion, whether in our private lives or on the public stage.

Russell’s diagnosis of a creature like Trump is unnerving: “Since no man can be omnipotent,” he writes, “a life dominated wholly by love of power can hardly fail, sooner or later, to meet with obstacles that cannot be overcome. The knowledge that this is so can be prevented from obtruding on consciousness only by some form of lunacy, though if a man is sufficiently great he can imprison or execute those who point this out to him. Repressions in the political and in the psychoanalytic senses thus go hand in hand.”

Although there are slow-moving rumblings of buyer’s remorse and investigative committees, there are no constraints on Trump’s lunacy. If we had a functional government or a press that did not rely upon clickbait, a cruel toddler never would have made it into the primaries, let alone the White House. Perhaps the only saving grace is that Trump is uncommonly stupid—and hopefully his need to be admired will lead to a magnificent unravelling before he becomes ‘sufficiently great’.

I find reassurance in another passage from Russell written shortly after World War II. In Philosophy and Politics, he outlines the insanity of any kind of fanaticism, no matter how well-intentioned. The inflexible views of fascists and ecclesiastics as well as communists and anarchists cannot be tolerated because they prefer to “inflict a comparatively certain present evil for the sake of a comparatively doubtful future good.” Reminding us that we should always aim for “order without authority,” Russell tackles the perception that liberalism is too squishy to succeed against the ferocious single-mindedness of conservatives:

“It is commonly urged that, in a war between liberals and fanatics, the fanatics are sure to win, owing to their more unshakable belief in the righteousness of their cause. This belief dies hard, although all history, including that of the last few years, is against it. Fanatics have failed, over and over again, because they have attempted the impossible, or because, even when what they aimed at was possible, they were too unscientific to adopt the right means; they have failed also because they roused the hostility of those whom they wished to coerce. In every important war since 1700 the more democratic side has been victorious. This is partly because democracy and empiricism (which are intimately interconnected) do not demand a distortion of facts in the interests of theory.”

Liberalism and reason may indeed triumph in the long run—but at what cost today? How many of these unnecessary battles persist due to a failure to communicate rationally and compassionately, and a refusal to tackle unchecked capitalism and the legal obligation to maximize profits at the expense of citizens? People who do not feel financially exploited do not tend to respond to strongman politics of tribalism and fear.

I no longer understand the daily shock and anger towards Trump or the Republicans who pretend the emperor is clothed. They are the viper in the fable and it is useless to complain about being bitten. The ire and energy of anyone who cares about decency should be directed towards the Democratic Party; its refusal to articulate or support a  coherent liberal vision created this breeding ground for America’s most self-destructive instincts.

Displays of mourning and the contemplation of death were once critical components of public life, yet much of modern society has swept these elements from view. Today fewer people belong to a particular faith and many of us are left to confront death alone without the rituals and reassurances of community. How can our public spaces better address our relationship with grief, which is the most universal yet also most isolating of emotions?

Grief Is a Beast That Will Never Be Tamed is a mural that offers a meditation on loss and invites passersby to share rituals, beliefs, and texts which have provided solace. Inspired by the myth of the Minotaur, the first installation was created in Heraklion, Greece. The presentation of the mural included a discussion on grief and ritual with the community, and the project was also presented in Skagaströnd, Iceland, and Lisbon, Portugal. This work is part of an ongoing collaboration between Candy Chang and James A. Reeves.

Heraklion, Greece

A Meditation on Loss

Grief is a beast that will never be tamed, a creature born from broken promises and mistakes. We will always be together. I will never leave you. Everything will be okay. No matter how heartfelt these vows might be, one day they will collapse and leave us pacing the floors in shock, half-thinking we might enter a room to find the departed returned, sitting in a favorite chair. Instead we discover a new companion, a shadow in the corner.

Although experienced by everyone, grief remains fiercely private. Only we know the textures missing from our lives. The sound of a loved one’s feet padding down the hall, the heat and history pulsing beneath the way they said good morning—a voice never to be heard again. The shadow howls for answers. Infected by phrases like moving on and overcoming, we push this creature back into the darkness where it grows deformed, torturing us with dreams of running through unfamiliar rooms.

Our psyches are such elaborate labyrinths of defensive architecture, cluttered with alleys and walls that prevent grief from baring its teeth. But cracks always emerge. Grief might arrive on a gust of wind or a glimpse at a calendar, but it seems to prefer the night when silence allows it to be heard most clearly. Nails skitter across memories and regret burns like a fever. We try to fight but there is no battle here, no prize to be won. This creature cannot be buried or slain by a hero. One night it comes to you on its knees, asking for mercy, demanding to be seen. Perhaps grief cannot be tamed, but it can be loved.

Heraklion, Greece

Selected Responses

“I lost my mother to cancer on November 16, 2016. She was also diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a few years prior. I was aware the cancer was aggressive and our only recourse at the time was pain management. I was adamant to keep her home until she crossed over, and so I was there in our home holding her hand singing ‘Like my Mother Does’ when she took her last breath. It was the most excruciating and difficult thing I’ve ever had to do, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I wanted my mom to know I was there and she was not alone. Grief is an imaginary friend who follows me everywhere. Not always present to others, yet I know it is there. In every conversation, in every thing I do, the absence is always evident to me. I find doing things in her memory brings me purpose and comfort by continuing her legacy — so that everyone who meets me will also know her, my greatest inspiration and my hero.”

—Marie in Canada

“I lost a close friend and mentor, my fairy godmother. I was on the other side of the world when I got the call. The loss still feels raw and I often pretend that it isn’t real, that she’ll be there when I get back home. I wore heavy liquid eyeliner while in mourning; she always wore a full face with sixties sex-kitten eyes. Before I went away travelling, she gave me a $100 note with good luck messages written on it, saying it would help bring me home. I’ll never spend it. I’m making a performance piece about her, probably for closure, about the places we used to go. It is here that her absence is most palpable. Changing, becoming voids as well.”

—Anonymous in Skagaströnd, Iceland

“I lost my first born son to the needle just over a year ago — and yes, grief is a beast that will never be tamed. Feathers, he gives me feathers.”

—Anonymous in Melbourne, Australia

“My parents died when I was in my 20s. They died two years apart, both suddenly and painfully. I recently wrote a poem about them, which made me happy and grateful because they gave me the memories, guidelines, and values that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.”

—Carla in Lisbon, Portugal

“I have lost my sweetheart and my health. I keep trying to let go, but memories overwhelm me like an ocean crashing over me. Moments of tenderness from memories of loving and being loved help me treasure what was.”

—Nancy in Reno, USA

“I lost my mother one week ago. She suffered from cancer but died from bacterial meningitis. I feel sad but also very angry about her loss; I cry and I still have not realized that she’s gone. I feel angry about the injustice of losing good people who have so much to offer but for some reason they have to go. I must protect my father who lost his wife. My mother would talk about the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

—Kostas in Heraklion, Greece

“I lost my mom on May 5 of 2015. After a long battle with cancer, she died in a hospice room. We watched her take her last breath. She seemed to fight the end — until it seemed her body reminded her there was no other way out. Grief feels heavy. It broke apart a family that, in my eyes, wasn’t entirely together. I try so hard to forgive others because she was so giving. This has proven to be very hard to do. Cancer and the cost of fighting it robbed her of the chance to retire in peace. I try to eat many of her favorite foods, recreate some of her favorite meals, wear her grey turtleneck sweater. Grief feels heavy and dark. I try to eat many of her favorite foods, recreate some of her favorite meals (perfect homemade flour tortillas elude me still), visit the library (she loved James Patterson novels), wear her grey turtleneck sweater, keep in touch with my sister and send her texts my mother might send, although she was terrible at texting. I kept the voicemail that she sent to me the week before she died. I spend time in the house she tried so hard to save.”

—Veronica in USA

“I’ve lost dear pets. I’ve lost my grandmother. But the grief that has stayed with me the longest is losing my father. We found out he had cancer in July and he was in the hospital every day until September. I became engaged less than a week after we found out, and I was married the year after. I bought a house. I was promoted at work. All big changes that he would have been so proud to see me accomplish. All moments that I would have loved to share with him. The grief still comes around, nudging me at times while I’m driving. Nudging me at times when I’m alone at home.I find solace when I react, do, or say things that remind me that I am indeed my father’s daughter. I am glad that I get to carry this with me, and I hope he is aware of the impression he made on me. He helped me become the strong and independent woman that I am today. I am part of his lasting mark on this earth. This keeps me going.”

—Maria in Connecticut, USA

“My partner just lost his aunt. She was like a mother and best friend to him. We’re in a different city so there has been lots of traveling before and after the death. As it only just happened, we are in shock and survival mode. Finding comfort is tricky. I guess it’s a mixture of trying to distract from the pain yet also finding moments for remembrance—very difficult in a world where you don’t get much time to reflect.”

—Mathew in Heraklion, Greece

“My wife died in the summer of 2011. Her last words to me were help me die. Not in an assisted suicide way, but rather to help her on her way. Her body was full of cancer and she was trying so hard to die that the adrenaline was keeping her body going. I spoke to her, encouraging her to relax and let go, to not fight it. After about twenty minutes she gently drew her last breath. I don’t remember most of the next two and a half years. Grief is still my constant companion. I don’t cry much anymore. I walk around with what I can only describe as emptiness. I enjoy many things today but the emptiness is still there lurking in the background. I was never angry about her death. The emptiness swallows the sadness, anger, and all the other feelings that could have resulted from her death. There is nothing to strike back at and alone at night is still difficult. Comfort is a funny word. There is nothing that comforts me. Friends help. I used to say that I hoped I would die first. After living through her death, I am glad I didn’t die first because she didn’t have to go through what I did. I’m old enough now to know that more of life is behind me than ahead of me and I hold fast in the belief that there is an afterlife and we will be reunited. In some way still unknown to me, we will be together again. I have learned not to fear death because I watched the grace and dignity with which she faced hers. This is my solace.”

—Fred in Maryland, USA

“I was at home in Iceland when my daughter rang me with the news that my son died in Australia. I am forever changed. I see my life as before and after the event; now there is a greyer lens on my existence. He was a musician and I listen to his voice whenever I need to.”

—Anonymous in Skagaströnd, Iceland

“Grief is something for which I am getting prepared. Due to the bad condition of a beloved person, I grieve for the moments I cannot share with her anymore, for the moments I cannot help but miss her. Sometimes I grieve for the person I have become without her, yet at the same time I feel blessed for the time she dedicated to me to become the person I am today.”

—Mika in Heraklion, Greece

“My uncle died by suicide. My mom told me on the way home from my dancing lesson, and I burrowed my head a little lower in my scarf and asked if there was anything to eat at home . . . to break the tension of my brothers standing around the table. He wasn’t in my life enough to really miss him, but I think I’m scared of what we might have in common. He was very intelligent but never had the chance to pursue academia in working class England in the 1950s, and I’ve dedicated my degree to him. I told him this at his grave.”

—Anonymous in Skagaströnd, Iceland
Temporary installation in Skagaströnd, Iceland. A strong gust wind smashed the glass—this felt like a more accurate representation of grief.
Athens, Greece

Absolute stillness in Athens on Christmas morning. After a night of garbled dreams of headlines and pundits, I walked past shuttered storefronts covered with graffiti in search of my Christmas present: a pack of cigarettes after quitting for six months. The Greeks know how to smoke. In America we stand on cold sidewalks with shamed faces; here smokers luxuriate in a grey haze like it’s 1962. Rolling cigarettes is a family activity. Starbucks has a smoking section. I savored the familiar box in my palm, the sacrament of unwinding the cellophane and peeling back the gold foil, the warm raisin smell of tobacco and the cupping of a flame. How could this dramatic act of fire, smoke, and breath ever have become a mindless routine, let alone something I wanted to quit? Beneath a heat lamp at a café, I admired the pigeons while reading about the last days of Socrates. An ashtray and a complementary pastry appeared on the table.

Psyche is the Greek word for breath, evidence of a graceful relationship between spirit and flesh until Socrates split the soul from the body, creating the ghost in the machine and leaving the mind to wonder: if God is so perfect and complete, why did He bother making this kind of world? (Because the divine must be expressed, said Plotinus.) I closed the book, lit another cigarette, and thought about my soul. But mostly I struggled to resist my telephone’s siren song of breaking news.

An old man whispered to his dog. A waitress touched up her lipstick in the mirror. The Parthenon floated upstairs. Upstairs. That’s how the chatty cab driver described the hills, and the slope towards the sea was downstairs. This seems like a wonderful way to look at the world: the city as a house. Pigeons pecked at the checkered tiles for flakes of pastry while across the Atlantic the next American president brayed about his television ratings and promised a nuclear arms race for the holidays.

I expected to spend my days in Greece researching ritual and considering the erosion of myth. I imagined tranquil afternoons in libraries and museums, my footsteps echoing through marble halls. But there is no escaping the world and I spent far too much time staring into screens instead of contemplating the history around me, unable to believe that a psychotic game show host would be allowed to command the most powerful office in the world. Although I should have known better, I half-expected the adults to enter the room at the eleventh hour and save us from ourselves.

I stood before the ruins of the Agora and Parthenon, the foundations of democracy. Once again they were falling apart. The promise of liberalism is redshifting into tribalism, a grim cycle described by Plato when he walked among these shards of marble two thousand years ago: the endless swing between democracy and tyranny as determined by the distribution of wealth. Although it’s tempting to retreat into philosophical detachment, to cultivate a world-weary nihilism, I must believe that history moves upwards rather than in mindless circles.

Fifty years ago the historian Will Durant contemplated the slow march of change. “The mills of the gods grind exceedingly slow,” he wrote, “lest the mind of man should break under strain of endless transformations.” Yet I can feel my mind breaking.

Are the mills speeding up? Is history accelerating? My students often complain that life is passing too quickly, that too much seems to happen each day. “I wish we could go back to natural time,” one said. “No news or notifications, just waking up and falling asleep with the sun.” She is only sixteen years old.

Hope was written across the walls of Athens and Heraklion, a jumble of spray-painted shrieks for anarchy and power to the people, for love and open borders: Destroy Fortress Europe. No borders. Immigration is not a crime. So much graffiti in Greece, covering its shutters, doors, and bricks—a reverberation of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s starry-eyed call to arms a century ago: “Artists and writers have the immediate duty to get hold of their pots of paint and, with their masterly brushes, to illuminate, to paint all the sides, foreheads, and chests of cities.” Also from Decree No. 1 on the Democratization of the Arts: “Let the streets be a feast of art for all. And if all this comes to pass…everyone who goes out into the street will grow to be a giant and in wisdom, contemplating beauty instead of the present-day streets with their billboards, where every page has been written on their signs by greed, the lust for mammon, calculated meanness and low obtuseness, all of which soil the soul and offend the eye.” But Plato’s pendulum swung the Bolshevik revolution hard towards tyranny. Mayakovsky shot himself at the age of 36 and twenty million died under Stalin. How will the next uprising survive this age of networked surveillance, agitprop warfare, and hoarded wealth?

Graffiti Street

Politics at the Kafeneíon. The table started with three low voices and grew to fourteen loud ones, a loose confederation of Greek, French, Australian, German, and American. We discussed the world’s backslide into panicky jingoism rather than tackling the lunatic mythology of late capitalism. As an American, I felt the familiar sensation of being mortified by my country, the urge to apologize to everyone in advance. Some said this rise in nationalism was a blip, a minor rip in the fabric of democracy that could be easily mended. I stayed quiet and envied their optimism.

A voice in the haze ruminated about “the financial terrorism” that led to Greece’s economic crisis. An elegant old woman sipped her glass of ouzo, rolled a cigarette, and swiped away the political doomsaying. She had the watchful look of experience. “We will be okay,” she said. “Perhaps I am still naive, but I will always choose to be this way.”

After midnight a few slurry voices downshifted into the familiar language of conspiracy, the hushed tones that signal talk of the new world order, inside jobs, brainwashing, and coordinated attacks. Perhaps installing a raging jackass in the White House would shock the system, someone suggested. Maybe this will wake up a nation that had fallen asleep at the wheel, lulled by its cheap comforts and entertainments. (An echo of Juvenal’s lament from two thousand years ago: “Luxury, deadlier than any armed invader, lies like an incubus upon us still, avenging the world we brought to heel.”) But this argument is as cruel as it is juvenile. Certainly there is a better way to inspire civic engagement than flirting with fascism, lurching from one humiliation to the next, and allowing very real lives to be destroyed along the way. (Although history provides few examples here.) The party ended when somebody dropped a dog on the table, scattering empty glasses and ashtrays across the floor.

The 4000-year-old ruins of the palace at Knossos were a vivid reminder that civilizations disintegrate. I dutifully photographed the crumbling walls, mosaic fragments, and towering jars that once held olive oil, wine, and the remains of the dead. So many cups, plates, and blades on display. Although I knew these Minoan fragments of pottery and spears were the only surviving relics, that the clothes and scrolls had long since turned to dust, I could not shake the impression that ancient cultures cared only for dishware and war. I contemplated placards with phrases that fired the imagination: Dismembered Horse Skeleton. A Liberation Vessel. Somersaulting Over Upturned Swords. The Minor Pleasures of Daily Life. A 4000-year-old fresco shows men and women leaping over a bull, a ritual that held this culture together with notions of glory and duty, a reminder that we are unnatural beasts, capable of such cruelty—omnivorous predators who would devour the world were it not for our faith in rituals and codes.

The deceased were placed in a fetal position at the bottom of sarcophagi, symbolizing the return to the primeval womb. Postures of prayer and preparations for judgment decorated the jars, images of men on their knees before a beast on a throne. What is this hard-wired expectation—or fear— that we shall be judged for this life? This belief is as old as time, although perhaps it is slipping away.

What will take its place?

How do I worship? What do I believe? Sitting in the back of grand Orthodox churches, I thought about my departed parents and searched for religion. Sometimes I worry that if I pray, god will appear and judge me. There is an obvious conflict between my atheism and fear of god. But stranger things have lived together. There is no logic to the soul. I want to move beyond grief, a word which feels like a wall or tunnel without end. Why not devotion or grace? These words suggest a way forward and even if I’m not part of a spiritual tradition, the descriptions and paintings of the saints who sought salvation reassure me. Gazing at images of sacrifice, I imagined a new reformation of the church, one that keeps its majestic cathedrals, gilded icons, and liturgical tones—but dispenses with the priesthood, replaces the Bible with the otherworldliness of Origen, and opens its doors to anyone seeking communion with the sublime.

Walking the labyrinthine streets of Athens and Heraklion, I sensed another chord of grief: a deep-boned mourning for the loss of a semi-rational world, one which, while profoundly flawed, nonetheless maintained the illusion of guardians at the gate, a faith in messy yet steady progress towards dignity for all, and a promise that we would not be ruled by the whims of a megalomaniac determined to burrow into our psyche. Although the comparison is by no means direct, the recent triumph of fear and lunacy at the expense of reason feels not unlike the shock following the loss of a loved one: an event whose reverberations will not be understood for a long time.

When every statement from the White House brings to mind that chilling phrase from Camus—“the denial of other human beings”—and ecclesiastical cruelty becomes intertwined with a president’s vanity, nothing is certain except the old world will never return and a better one must be built quickly.

Returning to the ruins of the Agora, I think about the concept of elegant decay. Greece reminds me of New Orleans in a way, a place where tourists flock for history despite the local desire to remain present-tense and future-bound. More than its ancient columns and statuary, I will remember Athens and Heraklion for the writing on the walls. The graffiti splashed across the cradle of democracy felt appropriate now that our sacred institutions appear obscene while profane cries of resistance sound absolutely spiritual.

Further reading: Grief Is a Beast That Will Never Be Tamed, a mural installed in Heraklion with Candy Chang; The Rebel by Albert Camus; The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant; and Plotinus, who is gradually becoming my favorite philosopher.

Heraklion, Greece

Candy Chang and I recently collaborated on a mural in the Lakkos neighborhood of Heraklion, Greece. Grief Is a Beast That Will Never Be Tamed combines a short meditation on mourning with a retooled collage of the Pietà. The title came one morning while I wandered the strange region between wakefulness and sleep, surfacing from another dream of my parents, their faces before me and very much alive yet I could only say you’re not supposed to be here. I do not know how to grieve. Without faith in an otherworldly logic to the universe, two options present themselves: wallowing in pity and guilt, or moving forward with my chin up and the sensation that I’ve buried something.

One particularly hard day, I was wandering through the supermarket, lost in a dim memory of childhood shopping trips with my mom, remembering the way she held my hand as we scrolled down the aisles while I gazed up at the fluorescent lights, wondering if that was heaven. Now I was a confused adult, standing before a display of energy drinks while I watched the people flow past me—men and women in their thirties, forties, fifties, sixties—and the obvious finally occurred to me: Everyone here has lost somebody too. Or they will. We are all carrying the ghosts of parents, lovers, and even children. Why should I feel so alone? Perhaps this is why grief often feels indulgent, even shameful: if everybody else seems to be carrying on happily, why can’t I? As I passed through the sliding doors, the city’s billboards for widgets, entertainments, and endless youth felt particularly tone-deaf that night.

Six weeks later, Candy and I began spreading black paint across a wall in Greece. I had reservations about the project. Was the word ‘grief’ too obliterating? Was there anything to say about the subject? After we pasted up the text, an elderly woman stood before me with a passionate expression, her arms outstretched as she spoke to me in Greek. “She wants to know if you wrote the story on the wall,” someone explained. When I nodded, the woman clasped her hands together and her eyes went damp. The translator continued: “She says she just lost somebody too, and you describe her grief very well. She thanks you.” This moment made the project worthwhile.

The next day a woman with a stern ponytail told us the mural was horrible, that it was not art and, to be clear, she absolutely hated it. “Looking at this makes my heart black,” she shouted as she walked away. Part of me agrees with her, for I remain uncertain about whether a public conversation about grief can be constructive—or if it is too dark, a wall that forecloses discussion. But we have received several extraordinary responses from people who have lost fathers and godmothers, wives and sons. And I must remind myself that the only things worth making are the things which ask questions I cannot answer.

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