Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Demons and Dogs

There's an old Chinese story:

The emperor asked the court painter, "What's easy and what's difficult to paint?"

The painter responded, "Demons are easy, dogs are difficult."

Before I get too far ahead, I'll mention some things closely related to this story, and why it all ties into writing, art and living.

A dog in Xieng Khouang, Laos.

I recently finished recommending Khalil Gibran's lesser known classic, The Madman to some friends, because it demonstrates just how powerful truly tight language gets.

One of my favorite stories from The Madman:

The Two Cages:

In my father's garden there are two cages. In one is a lion, which my father's slaves brought from the desert of Nineveh; in the other is a songless sparrow.

Every day at dawn, the sparrow calls to the lion, "Good morrow to thee, brother prisoner."

The language is so exceptionally tight it demands a close reading, but speaks volumes- that in cages, lions and birds are one and the same.

All humanity, too might see the same lessons for itself, from the slaves of the narrator's father to the son and father themselves...

One can contemplate the issue of the songless sparrow being a particular kind of prisoner, and well, there are many stories like this within Gibran's book. Well worth seeking out.

Sadly, stories like this are extraordinarily difficult to write and find, while we have countless long-winded novels that achieve so much less for all their pages, festooning the shelves of humanity.

So, it's interesting when I see the story of demons and dogs.

Is this anecdote just a remark that the fantastic and the imaginary are easy to paint because no one knows what they look like, while people know what a dog is 'supposed to look like' and so artists are held to greater scrutiny?

Or is it a comment that people just recognize demons you're depicting more easily, or even:

Our inner demons and evils are sadly more ample, more willing and readily available subjects for portraits than the simple creatures of the earth?

There are so many different iterations to ponder, and as it snows outside, I'm thinking of these.

I first came across the story of demons and dogs in a throwaway quote on a book by Alex Kerr, who was analyzing particular 'failures' of Japanese economic policies and practices. From his point of view.

I couldn't really get into his book, whose premise really struck me as quite arrogant, and as it was, I was rather put off by the use of a Chinese story to open a discussion on Japan. I'm not even going to go into this, other than to say:

The overall paradox and irony of the situation doesn't escape me.

And so, coming back full circle, this was ALL the premise for a line from a section of my poem Oni, a few years back:

"Am I a dog in Demon State
Or a demon in Dog City?
Easy to say, difficult to believe
I can show you the way, in either case."

In closing, my parting thought is: I wonder whether or not the demons or dogs can recognize themselves in the pictures.

Have a great day!

Two Dogs in Laos.

1 comment:

Burlee Vang said...

Hey bro,

I enjoyed your discussion on how we perceive or depict what's physically in front of us as oppose to what we must only imagine. Never looked at things that way before.

I went on Amazon and read the excerpts from Madman. I think I'll get my own copy.