Connecting Picasso and the Circus with Sri Chinmoy, Elena Day, Jim Freund, Genevieve Valentine, and The Outer Limits
In Part 1, I embedded a video of Picasso and the Circus, where a little girl named Elena views Picassos in the museum, with cutaways to a modern-day Parisian circus. I closed by saying this makes me think of many things…
I sometimes listen to Hour of the Wolf, the sci-fi/fantasy radio programme started by the late Margot Adler, and hosted lo these many years by Jim Freund. I remember Jim saying that he loved the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis as a child, but when he reread them in adulthood the magic seemed to be gone.
Aha! I thought to myself. The books are the same, but what has changed? Consciousness has changed! This ties in very nicely with Picasso, who famously said that “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” Unless we consciously try to cultivate childlike qualities, those qualities become lost to us — and with them so much beauty and joy!
Students of Sri Chinmoy put on their own amateur circus which has all kinds of crazy and colourful acts meant to bring out childlike qualities:
It’s called the Madal Circus, based on Sri Chinmoy’s childhood nickname “Madal,” which means “kettledum” in Bengali. Of the Madal Circus, Sri Chinmoy said:
Dear ones, Madal Circus gives me the utmost joy, purer than the purest joy. Our philosophy is progress, progress, progress, progress. Let us not change our philosophy! I am begging you to remain young, young, young. Only the young in spirit will realise God.
— Sri Chinmoy, from His compassion is everything to us
Sri Chinmoy drew millions of birds, including this green one which graces the cover of one of his songbooks:
Blogging is learning, and TIL that Elena Day (the little girl in the film) grew up to create and perform The Green Bird character in Cirque du Soleil:
She has escaped her cage, and desperately wants to fly. But she can’t fly away and join the circus, because she is too awkward. She remains trapped in the urban world like a marionette with tangled strings.
— The Green Bird, Cirque du Soleil press kit
This could easily describe certain former seekers I know who lost their childlike qualities and became spiritually “bankrupt.” 😉
Moving on… Sri Chinmoy wrote this song about a green bird which he translated into English:
O green bird of the blue sky,
Tell me, will you go with me, brother?
I am afraid to go alone
To my Mother’s Home
Which is on the other shore.
No capacity have I
To swim across the river of destruction.
Will you follow me?
Will you help me fly like you
To the other shore
Where my Eternity’s Mother is?
— Sri Chinmoy, from Supreme, Teach Me How To Cry songbook
See also this discussion thread on “Bird Imagery in Secular and Sacred Music.” (I like connecting different sources like this to see what may be discovered by shifting from one frame of reference to another.)
Jim Freund, if you’re out there, I wonder if your frequent guest Genevieve Valentine — author of Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti — would enjoy this post. Her character Elena is perhaps darker and more dystopic than Elena Day’s Green Bird character, but it’s always fun to compare circus motifs and see how they pan out among different artists and genres. Reviewer Abigail Nussbaum notes that Mechanique opens with these lines:
The tent is draped with strings of bare bulbs, with bits of mirror tied here and there to make it sparkle. (It doesn’t look shabby until you’ve already paid.)
This forms a contrast with The Truman Show, which I recently wrote about. If we think of the faked city of Seahaven as a media big top, its illusions are rather high tech compared to those of Circus Tresaulti. In Truman there’s hope that one might escape from conformism and find a world more real, while the dystopic nature of Mechanique suggests that travellers in a dingy, post-apocalyptic world find little ultimate solace in the steampunkish illusions of Circus Tresaulti.
A memorable line from Mechanique reads: “You do strange things out in the world before you join the Circus.” Circus performers tend to live on the outskirts of the city, the outskirts of society, the outskirts of morality. Colourful characters who feel marked by difference may take refuge in a circus subculture where difference becomes a livelihood, a way of life, and ultimately the new norm. It was natural for a bohemian like Picasso to take an interest in the circus.
The young Picasso with his bohemian friends
I’ve written before about Chinese bohemian San Mao, and about the album Echo, which was a collaboration between San Mao, Chyi Yu, and Pan Ywe Yun. That album actually opens with a song which has a circus motif:
Of course, once one begins to tally up all the film, TV, music, and literature which dallies with some variation on the circus theme, the possibilities are endless. Only yesterday I happened on an old Outer Limits episode where a birdlike alien takes charge of a space ride and sends the ticketholders on a longer journey than they’d planned.
This campy trailer for “Second Chance” (The Outer Limits, s01e23) is highly evocative of the genre:
The no-star cast and noirish photography are refreshing in an age of overproduced technicolor extravaganzas.
Potent Outer Limits quote: “Maybe young people are the only ones who listen and understand. You can’t reach a closed mind.”