Wholly Attending: Notes on the Lessons of Black Sun

By Gareth Evans

black-sun-gary-tarn.jpgBlack Sun, 2005

"I write in the night, but I see not only the tyranny. If that were all I saw, I would probably not have the courage to continue. I see people sleeping, stirring, getting up to drink water, whispering their projects or their fears, making love, praying, cooking something while the rest of the family is asleep..." – John Berger, from Where Are We?


Look down. From a great height. As if with wings of desire over a city, the retina spilling with seeing. This is the world. Was it sight that sowed the wish for flight? To see it all. We climbed the dreams of our eyes to be here. What else touches this vision we have? We make cinema in our head. We pan and zoom. We caress the surface of all the visible with our gaze. We are all we see and more, because we see it.

Vision is a creation, not a perception…

Nothing is worth more than this day. – Goethe


And then, in the space between two intakes of breath, between a blink and its echo… the cancelled eyes, the black sun of the pupil put out. The cancelled Sun. At a still point of the turning world, a man on the floor of a room, inside pain as if it was a room – and locked - and the key was invisible, beyond reach.

I hear the axe has flowered,
I hear the place can't be named,
I hear the bread that looks on him
heals the hanged man,
the bread his wife baked him,
I hear they call life
the only refuge.

Paul Celan, from Schneepart


What is the goal of life? Being and being alive, its purpose, in the stream of the current, in the teem of the public spaces? What is the form a focused existence takes when it is faced by what happens in the phenomenal and its disruptions? How does an organism respond when all of its weather is fear?

Love is not love until love's vulnerable. – Theodore Roethke


When we were children, we thought like children. We felt the tree of ourselves grow within us. The pattern destined in the seed. Rings widened in our bones with each passing year. We believed that the tree we were would grow as it knew. Our parents believed it too. We would stretch towards the light. The tree. But the tree grows in the wind and the storm and the rain. It leans, it strives to stand. And so its shape shifts. Plan and accident. History.

"If you are trying to decide what is more important – the experience of the eye or the experience of the body – always trust the body, because touch is an older sense than sight and its experience is more fundamental. Apart from that, in our contemporary audiovisual civilisation, the eye is rather tired and ‘spoilt’. The experience of the body is more authentic, uninhabited by aestheticisation." – Jan Svankmajer, from his Decalogue

black-sun-gary-tarn-2.jpgBlack Sun, 2005


The senses and what they do: they touch the skin of the world in all the ways. And when a sense falters, hesitates, what happens? The palms and soles begin. To look. To touch. To look.

Re-examine all you have been told. Dismiss what insults your soul. – Walt Whitman


This is not a document. It is an act of witness. The witness of a witness. A man is blinded. He is his only testimonial. He stands up from the moment in which his life became an event. Later, again in his solitude, he will recount to himself the seconds leading up to that point as both evidence and verdict. And the breaking of a fresh path through dense growth.

Time spent in the difficult is never lost. – Rainer Maria Rilke


The simultaneity of the world. A birth, a death; the joys brushing such isolations, on the night transport, in the silence of an afternoon. How, now, a horror or epiphany. To be specific. To know and respect, but not only to be defined by the endless stories of the earth. So we sat in the restaurant, and the arrangement of the table seemed like a map of the evening. The wine cast its star across your cheek, its gleam, a dance of jewels.

And in Rangoon, at that very moment, they stood and were felled. To be specific. To know. What could be, and is.

"Hypnagogic vision is what you see through your eyes closed – at first a field of grainy shifting, multi-coloured sands that gradually assume various shapes. It’s optic feedback: the nervous system projects what you have previously experienced – your visual memories – into the optic nerve endings. It’s also called ‘closed eye vision.’ Moving visual thinking, on the other hand, occurs deeper in the synapsing of the brain. It’s a streaming of shapes that are not nameable – a vast visual song of the cells expressing their internal life." – Stan Brakhage


The gleaned image is both itself and inseparable from the ceaseless, onward flow of image. The infinite co-existence of the seen. We understand that each and any register of the eye could change everything. How then to look and not simply to see?

I see a thought, but how do I show you what I can’t see? – Peter Mettler, from Gambling, Gods and LSD

black-sun-gary-tarn-3.jpgBlack Sun, 2005


He recalled an assessment; that, before, he had looked with the eyes of an assassin. The targeted kill, terminal looking. When faced with the finite in his own life, the loss of sight for a man who had, until then, existed in the pupil like the light of a collapsing star, he became a choice. On one branch of his being, the rot of despair and withdrawal. On the other, the accepted death of a self no longer tenable in the world or circumstances as they had turned out. And the birth, out of this ash, of a new consciousness, fashioned on the absolute awareness of what it means to be.

And the canvas, no longer out there, standing in the high ceilinged spaces, but drawn taut between his ribs, running from heartbeat to heartbeat, a veil in the rushed and nervous arcades of his chest, but one which obscured nothing.

"…The cathedrals were dark, vast caverns with stained glass windows forming the surface of a world, a world of suspended illumination. There was no external world as such. After spending an extended period of time in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame at Chartres, for instance, one begins to see the world in that way. Upon exiting the cathedral we find ourselves attuned to this view and see the visual world as self-luminous and resting on a profound vastness, the mysterious darkness of our own being." – Nathaniel Dorsky, from Devotional Cinema


The secret then: to embody. Never to illustrate, but to hold the themes and concerns, the urgent prerogatives, so closely to one’s own skin that they become as if inseparable. And then to look instinctively at the world of one’s attention. But one is another. Just, but still. And in that infinitesimal distance lies the space of formal calculation that enables the art of communication. Expression as empathy. A looking from the left, so as to look closer. But a looking from within the spectrum of the subject.

It is metaphor then, not simile. For the moment of scrutiny (and perhaps forever) one is what one looks upon. Not ‘like’ or ‘as’, but the very thing. Stars sown in the soil of night; eyes harvesting the sky for answers…

I must lie down where all the ladders start. – W.B. Yeats


The complex simplicity of trusting in the good is another way of saying that there is a pattern beneath the turmoil that is felt, and invoked at times of great test. It is the profound philosophy of the ‘hand extended.’ When this does not happen it does not mean that the belief is invalid, because the corruption, survival or blossoming of a soul comes not from beyond its borders (even if they are the world) but rather from the degree to which it holds itself to be an agent and recipient of this pattern of relations.

We might, casually, call this hope, or faith. But faith engenders hope and hope dreams of solace. This solace arrives from myriad directions, and in equally innumerable registers. It is an example of what might be called the collage of being. In this collage – so vividly represented as the kaleidoscopic majesty of the seen in this film – the glimpsed, the unpredictable, the accidental, the provisional, arriving as versions of the ‘other’, as varieties of hue into the palette – challenge the tendency of the self to regard itself as monolithic and impermeable.

We stand on the hill and watch as the beetle consumes the fields, the monocultured grain. The threat when all is the same.

Behind us, in the grove, the wind can be seen in the leaves. The rigid trunk falls, the supple bough bends.

Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground. – Rumi


The double tension lay in this: that, for a film about the loss of the visual and that erasure’s subsequent wash through being, the frame was luminously visual; and then, that it was perhaps, in any final analysis, a film about words, about the language one finds to explain to another what it means to become something new, while remaining alive.

"The cinema we need will be a cinema of perceptions, of immediate experiences. It will not be a cinema of ideas. Like narratives, ideas are formed only after the fact, serve only to represent what is already past. We must therefore find a form that is capable of orienting us towards the present, a form not based on ideas (just as we must reconceive morality and come to think of it as concerned with attention, not intention). Such a form would not depend on separating out one aspect of experience from all the others, nor on any pre- or post-conception… It will present, simply and directly, the manifold of forces and relations that come into interplay in the coming-to-presence of an event. To achieve this the form will have to allow for multiplicity and contradiction, since contraries are present in all experience." – R. Bruce Elder, from The Cinema We Need

To see is to see beyond…

A mess of spilled materials, a wonderful cosmos. – Heraclitus


And the irony? That the artist lost the seen to gain insight of ever accumulating worth. And that he lost the eyes at the moment when the culture began to accelerate towards the seen as a way of evading scrutiny and history and analysis and any sense of the enduring value of things; at a moment when shifts in technology would mean that the seen could no longer be trusted; at a moment in the passage of the species when the volume of the seen would increase in inverse proportion to the level of understanding about what was being viewed.

Free of such distraction, of the noise of a visual culture in freefall towards a retinal collapse, he could look upon the oldest, deepest waters and find what he, perhaps, had always been seeking.

"…But the stone was warm as flesh and suddenly I understood something I had been seeing without understanding; why a piece of tin-foil had sparkled on the pavement, why the gleam of a glass had trembled on the tablecloth..." – Vladimir Nabokov, from Spring in Fialta


The only form of being which matters is one which is constantly in the process of becoming; the river that is never the same water twice. We cup this shimmer in our outstretched palms, the leaves of our hands, the maps of our years, the hands that are the roof of a house when we turn them into prayer. Under such a shelter we sleep but, more, we wake.

We set priority as we would the view of lifting ridges and we start to walk towards it.
Thought, I love thought.
But not the niggling and twisting of already existent ideas,
I despise that self-important game.
Thought is the welling up of unknown life into
Thought is the testing of statements on the touchstone of
the conscience,
Thought is gazing onto the face of life, and reading
what can be read,
Thought is not a trick, or an exercise or a set of dodges,
Thought is a man in his wholeness wholly attending.

D.H. Lawrence


The time of a frame and the time of a film are one. All of the film can be reached from the single fractioned second of a glimpse. And so… we move forwards and backwards along a path, a strip, a code that is not a line at all but a ribbon twisted at its junction into a figure of eight that ceaselessly turns and arrives at itself, again and again, always and changed. Now is our destination. Hand in hand we walk.

And so we keep pressing on, trying to achieve it, trying to hold it firmly in our simple hands, in our overcrowded gaze, in our speechless hearts. – Rainer Maria Rilke

The sense of life is life


We stand on the ferry as, slowly, steadily as the tide, it pulls away from the quay. Another day on earth. A single case and maybe a letter. A calling to come. The heart a sparrow in the chest. Soon we will be past the islands. And then out… All the journeys that matter are of two kinds, either pilgrimage or voyage. And sometimes the same. The wind is in our hair and the light is warm on our face. Soon we will be past the islands, and out on open water…

Eternity is now…

One thing leads to another, and this is the treasure that always runs through your fingers and never runs out. – Rebecca Solnit


This was written then, at a point in the world. After what had happened. How it was at that very moment. And all that is not yet known, all of it still to come. The hand reaches for the wood. And for the door…

Black Sun is released on dvd by Second Run this November (www.secondrundvd.com).

Many thanks to Tereza Stehlíková for conversations that aided and clarified this piece.