It's a rainy Halloween in Bergen, Norway, but I want to reflect back to last week, when I was in Houston to give a plenary address to the American Society of Bioethics and Humanities. It rained there too--the edge of Hurricane Patricia--but I don't want to write about rain. I want to write about silence.
While in Houston I had the opportunity to visit the Rothko Chapel, located in a suburb on the edge of a small Catholic college, but not part of the college because the founders wanted the space to be interdenominational. The Chapel defines a sacred space as well as any human strructure I've ever experienced. It also teaches something about the limits of narrative as a mode of experiencing the world.
You can google the Rothko Chapel for photos, although by definition, it doesn't photograph adequately; it's a space that needs to be inhabited, much like the Bilboa Guggenheim that I visited a couple of weeks ago (I've been having a good season for art and architecture). It's not large. When I walked in, I had an immediate feeling of sensory deprivation. The canvases seem black only, not Rothko's usual mix of colours. Then it's like your eyes adjusting to the dark and becoming able to see shapes in what at first seemed only blackness. The paint is textured; do shapes become visible, or is it a trick of the light? Are the shapes I'm seeing "on" the painting, or am I projecting them from some part of my mind? I thought of what I know intellectually, but can never quite believe, that we see not with our eyes but with our brains. It's like the zen koan that asks what moves, the flag or the wind?
So I sat there, and saw, and reflecting on seeing, but mostly I just was, in the space. That takes me to the narrative part. There isn't any. Rothko's art is consumately non-narrative. Or, any narrative is what I bring into the space; it's not of the space itself. In my generation of academics, a huge amount of ink was spilled over Derrida's gnomic "there is nothing outside the text" and what that means. In the Rothko Chapel, there is nothing outside the paintings and the space they create--and everything else is outside. The whole world of narrative is literally outside. And at least one spiritual discipline that the space invites and even requires is asking which narratives you--the one within this sacred space--want to bring in with you. Because any narrative in there is yours. You brought it, and you do have a choice.
It was an honour to be able to address the ASBH. But going to the Rothko Chapel was an experience that allowed me to rethink, yet again, the nature of experience, the sacred, and that which is before and possible after the word.