“As Within So Without”
Arteidolia Press, 2021
$15.00, 188 pages
Daniel Barbiero’s philosophical essays on aesthetic topics ranging from improvised music and dance to painting, literature and poetry, and their aesthetic and metaphysical underpinnings, attempt to provide an understanding of reality that harmonizes our interior experience with our outward reality. Hence, the title of his book, which he observes is a play on the old adage, “As above, so below.”
As Barbiero mentions in his Introduction, André Breton, founder of Surrealism, the cultural movement that developed in Europe after World War I, which gave power to the unconscious mind in artistic expressions, embodies the spirit behind these essays. The world, indeed, often presents itself as illogical and unnerving. Written over the past ten years and collected here, these twenty essays, then, like all good philosophical speculation, work toward a cohesive understanding of the world, our place in it, and how we represent that relationship.
Breton is the explicit subject of three of these essays, “The Silver Age of Surrealism in Exile,” “Seven Theses on ‘the Emotional Life of Words’,” and “Is Silence Golden?” This final essay takes off from Breton’s own “Silence Is Golden,” a 1944 essay in which Breton considers the value of musical expression. Breton had a complicated relationship with the composers of his day, Barbiero notes, the avante garde composers associated with Jean Cocteau, whom Breton detested, and Erik Satie. The Surrealists in general, Barbiero observes, considered musical expression inferior to other art forms.
Not so Daniel Barbiero! From the very first essay, “Imagining Barnet Newman While Playing Long Tones,” he takes the opposite point-of-view, elevating musical expression above the other arts, since it deals with time more so than space. Long tones emphasize this duration in time, shaping and modulating. Music exists, after all, in its performance. Barbiero celebrates this. “Free Improvisation & How It Means,” “Graphic Scores & Musical Post-Literacy,” “Free Improvisation as Experience & Self-Disclosure,” “Joëlle Léandre: Being with Sound” and “Physical Counterpoint: Reflections on Sound & Movement in Duet” also consider the value of music, this final essay focusing on its ties with dance.
Barbiero, a double bassist – as is Joëlle Léandre – has collaborated with Nancy Havlik’s Dance Performance Group. He likewise considers the performance art of dancing in several essays, such as “Dancing with the Hands,” in which, as in the previously mentioned essay on sounds and movement in a duet, he considers movement itself as a “form of intentionality.” Dance is one expression of this. “Dancing with the Hands” considers Havlik’s Fossil, whose theme is aging, and the movement of the dancers’ hands as they touch objects. Dance is very much concerned with space as well as time.
Barbiero also writes about painting and painters. Paul Klee, the Swiss-German Surrealist artist, is the subject of the essay, “The Angel of Contingency.” Klee’s painting, Angelus Novus, is at the center of the piece, the implications of its unconventional appearance (“a curious resemblance to Harpo Marx”) and the fact that the angel is in the act of speaking.
“Imaginary Numbers,” which focuses on Yves Tanguy’s 1954 landscape with that title, and “The Enigma of the Hour,” Giorgio de Chirico’s century-old work, also tackle the aesthetic implications of painting. “As Within So Without: The Painter as Clairvoyant,” echoing the title of the collection as a whole, considers Umberto Boccioni’s Stati d’animo (“states of mind”) Futurist trilogy from the early 20th century.
In sum, Barbiero praises these paintings for the way the “hard and fast line separating the subjective from the objective” (specifically with reference to Boccioni, but by inference we can extrapolate to include the genre in general) “is shown to be in fact a permeable tissue.”
Poetry comes under Barbiero’s microscope too. Two of the essays, “On Russell Atkins’ Poetics of Objectified Mind, “ and “Reading Russell Atkins’ Exteriors, Interiors,” deal with the concrete poetry of the Cleveland poet whose works were first introduced to magazines by the Harlem Renaissance figures, Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten. As is evident from the title of the latter essay, though it refers to Atkins’ poem, “Exteriors, Interiors,” from his collection, Juxtapositions, the within/without dichotomy is front and center in Barbiero’s discussion of poems as “objects.”
“Writing Pushed Beyond Writing” is another essay that addresses the literary arts. Barbiero introduces us to the concept of “asemic texts,” a word that literally means “without meaning” and suggests, as Archibald MacLeish might have had it, a poem that is rather than one that means.
Time and again Barbiero refers to André Breton’s seminal essay, “Marvelous versus Mysterious” – indeed, a sentence in the original French is one of the epigraphs to this collection (“Abandonnées les rênes du sense commun…”). For Barbiero, it stands as the manifesto of Surrealist poetry, in its declarations concerning the “emotional life of words,” their impact beyond simply conveying information.
So what are we to make of Daniel Barbiero’s thoughts on artistic expression as a whole? Rooted in early 20th century aesthetics, a time of modernist turmoil that saw such bold movements as Surrealism, Dadaism and Futurism, all of which assert the power of the unconscious and dreams, the strange and magical, his central thesis is indeed succinctly expressed in the title, “As Within So Without.” Applying his insights to contemporary artistic expression, Barbiero provides a consistent point-of-view with which to consider this aspect of human endeavor, whether the reader buys it or not, and thus these essays are worthy of our attention. They deserve to be read by serious people.