Some scattered reflections after visiting the Met

Yesterday, I went into NYC on the Metro-North because there are exhibits at the Met that I wanted to see. I was in the Met for about six hours, and here’s what I saw:

  • Watercolors of the Acropolis — Émile Gilliéron was a watercolorist who did some very large-format works to document architectural sculptures on the Acropolis. This captures fragments of surviving pigment, and the preservation video in the small exhibit is really cool.
  • The World Between Empires: Art and Identity in the Ancient Middle East — This was really interesting. I am extremely happy that I read Parker’s Greek Gods Abroad because my brain was able to cross-reference against it.
  • Seeing the Divine: Pahari Painting of North India — A small exhibit that focuses a lot on divine eye contact and devotees.
  • The Tale of Genji: A Japanese Classic Illuminated — When I read the Tale of Genji in high school, I really liked it. This exhibit brings together calligraphic, social, and religious contexts as a kind of exhibit annotation to the text. Very cool.
  • Atea: Nature and Divinity in Polynesia — A small exhibit, very wonderful, very thought-provoking.

I also went through some parts of the standing exhibits in the Greek and Roman Art area (as titled on the map label; it contains Etruscan and other works from those geographic regions, too).

While I was on the train ride back, drifting in and out of sleep, I was thinking and synthesizing a lot of things, and it occurred to me that there is some stuff that I would like to write down. I’ve been using Twitter a lot recently to collate thoughts in somewhat large threads to keep things organized, especially when it comes to reading Plato and the philosophers.

Such things work until they do not. I think in longform. My thoughts last night were fragmented and disjointed, like slate rock crumbling under my fingertips while walking at a gorge’s edge, or like carrying a lot of things up several flights of stairs without a bag and trying not to let anything drop. I want to unify them together, or at least present some kind of order.

So, parasocial friends, here are some things that I have been thinking about. It’s still a disjointed jumble, but I blame staying up late on the train back home and feeling dehydrated today.

On Piety

The place I want to start has nothing to do with the Met at all, but some unease that I have had ever since I tweeted about my morning routine, where I said that I do 25-40 minutes of prayer.¹ It led to some conversations that, while good, got me thinking; those thoughts are an important starting point because one of those conversations included the word pious, and that’s a common thread in much of what I want to say.

I’ve often been cautious in public about discussing religious practices that could be overwhelming for newcomers. My hope, especially with the posts I’ve made that I’ve tagged “you are new!”, is that information is broken down in a way that makes things actionable and less vast — that instead of feeling like one has to read 800 books and have x amount of committable income, le is empowered to do well with what le has with a clear decision tree.

Piety also isn’t about the number of minutes someone can set aside. It’s about an outlook of etiquette, respect, and duty, and it is about the commitment to maintain relationships with gods.

To a large extent, it also involves realism about what is possible for someone to do and what is not possible. I know myself fairly well, especially my mental energy. In the morning, I shower. It’s very easy for me to do religious things right after. My brain holds things and works at them until they get done. It doesn’t matter what these things are, be they to-do list items or religious things or complex questions, and I have to manage what gets put in so it doesn’t feel like the winds have been released from a jar in all directions.

The Met

My girlfriend had a bit of time before she met up with her friend, so we both went to the Met. She and I saw the watercolors first, as she is a watercolor artist and that was interesting to her. We went upstairs to The World Between Empires to look at the exhibit, and she left about halfway through.

The World Between Empires had some very interesting incense burners, often with architectural elements reminiscent of temples. I’d known that frankincense came from some of these areas, and I was pleased to have context. (I offer its oil to Hestia and Zeus during household worship and generally look for incense blends that contain it.)

I learned other things, too, like how there was a sanctuary at Heliopolis-Baalbek in what is now Lebanon; it apparently gave oracles. The information about the pantheons, along with the Greek and Roman god names in the standard dance of interpretatio and syncretism, was a useful window onto religious cultus.

The 12-minute video in The World Between Empires about the destruction of Palmyra was very moving. I agree with the scholar who said that she didn’t want to see or display images of people desecrating historical sites.

This sentence in one of the exhibit rooms bothered me: “[T]emples that had functioned for thousands of years in cities such as Babylon entered their final phases.” It was weirdly neutral language that didn’t sit easy in my stomach. What does it mean for a temple to enter a final phase? That’s a really weird way to allude to conversion.

It has also been increasingly difficult for me to look at statues and the like when they bear markings that mean they were probably desecrated — physically painful is perhaps how I would describe it, an ache in the chest and a mental struggle to look the image in the eyes. My mind arboresces very fast, and it’s not very pleasant to visualize how the markings happened. I much prefer images that just show weathering.

I left the exhibit, drank water, and went into the Greco-Roman rooms. First came the mezzanine level, where I found gorgon images and some of the votive statues, which made me smile. I went downstairs to the light-filled hall to look at statue fragments, then at the statues that were not so fragmented or harmed, and I wound up in the room with the grave stele. Is it such a good idea to have funerary things so close to what were once agalmata? Some of these things are even mixed together in the same rooms. The thought made me suddenly uncomfortable. I tweeted.

The Atea exhibit was hard to find. I didn’t realize it was a literal box in the middle of an exhibit floor and walked right past it the first time (the back of it), distracted by Aztec gods like Chalchiuhtlicue, eventually emerging in the room with the large windows covered in sunscreens with the enormous, elegant carvings and art. When I doubled back around, I found the box and went in through the front.

The Atea exhibit started with a juxtaposition — stars and constellations and islands and their chains mirrored in their respective oceans. It is conceptually extremely beautiful. I thought about Nyx while reading the exhibit intro text (along with some of the Orphic stories). There was an extract of Kumulipo, a chant-hymn recited for the god Lono on Hawai’i, that reminded me of star formation and the slow accumulation of protoplanets and fragments into hot planets that eventually cool into stability. I had not known about barkcloth, nor had I known about the place of the staff-like ritual objects for connecting human worshippers to the gods.

There was a disjointed moment when I was looking at some of the ritual objects. Two older adults came in with a young woman, and the woman started mocking the appearance of the agalmata. I glared at her, but she didn’t turn in my direction. It was really impolite and voyeuristic, especially since most of these islands were converted to Christianity and their indigenous religions all but wiped out.

What I remember of the Tale of Genji is that I had a used book, its cover was blue, and the previous owner had spilled something in it. I have a good memory of it, though, so I was very excited about this exhibit. The temple area with the Buddha and the bodhisattvas was very beautiful and quiet. Murasaki Shikibu may have begun with some of the story’s later chapters at Ishiyamadera, perhaps inspired by the bodhisattva Kannon, and Murasaki may have become quite strongly associated with Kannon after her death. This reminded me a bit of philosophers like Pythagoras (who was strongly associated with Apollon), and I got to thinking about divine inspiration and creative arts and an entire cluster of things related to how things are transmitted and understood over time. That was much more powerful than my other exhibit takeaways from Tale of Genji, which were generally related to Japanese literary culture and the importance of women in the Japanese literary tradition.

From there, I went to Seeing the Divine: Pahari Painting of North India. It was a single room, and I enjoyed it a lot. Most of how I understood the exhibit was filtered through my experience of gods in Hellenism and my understanding of Platonic philosophy, so there is likely stuff that I am missing. I really liked the focus on the divine gaze and the information in the card text about devotees. Coming out of a recent religious experience,² a lot of pieces were relatable even if I don’t know that much about Radha and Krishna.

That’s about when my phone was near-death, and I was somewhat overloaded with thoughts from what I had seen. I sat in the basement for a bit to charge my phone before meeting up with my girlfriend and a Twitter mutual — the three of us had dinner and good conversation and the fried rice was really delicious — and my head was overloaded assimilating things and thinking.

This all comes back to piety because a lot of my thoughts in the exhibits do, I think, get to that type of mindset. I do not know where this thought is going, but I present it as it is.

Fragmentation

The last thing I will say is that while having all of these thoughts, my head has been wrestling with some larger questions — first, the problem of fragmentation, unlikeness, and otherness and its relationship to machine learning, artificial intelligence, hyper-segmentation of social and market groups into splintered ingroups and outgroups that are all at one another’s throats.

It’s not exactly pessimistic thinking. Alongside it, I’m thinking about mythology, art, creativity, and harmonization, specifically what needs to be done as a counterweight. I don’t know that I have much patience for things that splinter as opposed to build up anymore. This might have something to do with what happened in May; it might not. I kept thinking about it while looking at the destroyed statues.

Second, I’ve been thinking about miasma and the legacy of colonialism, global warming, and late stage capitalism, remixed together with some things from mythology involving Apollon and how he established his sacred sites.

Both of these things have been influenced by reading Hermias, Proclus, Plato, Plotinus, and others. I’ve shifted my reading focus a lot over the past month.

That’s essentially all I have to say. It’s admittedly incoherent, but I did add headers, and if you got down this far, thank you for your patience!


  1. 25 minutes is about how long it takes on weekdays to go through observances for household gods, to honor the god(s) of the lunar day, and to honor gods with whom I have a devotional thing going on. On the weekends, since I usually don’t need to be anywhere fast, I will often do more. Sometimes, I’ve been doing additional things in the late evening for Apollon.
  2. This happened at the end of May’s first decad. One of my friends said this religious experience sounded like being on mushrooms (?), and he was surprised that it happened while I was reading (he already knows I don’t do substances). There’s a lot that I wish I could decompress about and compare notes with others about, but it’s a bit too private to write about in public; it sucks to be an ambivert/extrovert sometimes. I did journal about it longhand.

 

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