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The Roots and the Star
October 29, 1983

Two weeks ago in this space, in the issue of October 15, there was an essay of mine titled “Rootless.” It was about how there are artists in this world who are people with no roots in human life, and so they make works that have no real way to get to the targets they otherwise might have in the lives of other people. I called these artists “solitary children who play only with their toys.” During the two weeks that elapsed between the time I wrote the essay and its publication, I took a trip to the Yucatan, where I read most of D. H. Lawrence's novel The Plumed Serpent; I returned home and constructed a lecture about Leonardo da Vinci for my art-history class; and I saw, late one afternoon, a man lying drunk in a gutter.

The man in the gutter prompted me to remember Lawrence's image of the star that might shine in every human breast, and I wondered why the man had chosen to throw away his star. Working up the lecture on Leonardo prompted me to wonder once again about the roots of modern art and to realize that one of those roots was Leonardo, a man himself without roots. Both of those recollections have suggested the following sequel and response to my “Rootless” of October 15.

Why did the man in the gutter throw away his star? Lawrence derived the star image from the evening star and the morning star, from the greatest brightness that hangs in the sky between night and day. He said that the star is the union of opposites and that it is the emblem of the manhood of men and the womanhood of women, which shines forth and keeps and leads them on their true way in life. Another writer in another age would have called that star the soul.

Well, why did the man in the gutter throwaway his star? The reason usually given is that he despaired his star might ever rise and shine, that he despaired of himself and so drank his star away. He drank to forget the failures of the past—and, unfortunately, to confirm that those failures would be repeated in the future. The failures of the past consisted of rejections—his parents’, lovers’ and society’s rejections of him. Those rejections resulted in a negative self-image: everyone said he was garbage, and believing them, he threw himself away. He did not maintain the shining star in himself which might lead men and women; instead, he snuffed it out.

Lawrence saw the star shining in the human breast (actually, between the heart and the genitals), and he also saw our feet reaching root like into the earth, our right hands raised high into the sky, a hand raised so the bird of heaven can alight on it. For Lawrence, the star of soul shining in a person was thus the union of tensions between earth and sky, as the morning star is the union of night and day. And so, when the drunk in the gutter threw away his star, he threw away both earth and heaven—both his roots and his reach for the life of the sky.

Now, what does all this have to do with Leonardo and certain rootless artists of today (of which I do not say I am not one)? Well, it might be said that Leonardo did follow the star of his soul—his per­sonality—wherever it led him, including certainly beyond the rooted soil of his contemporaries. And, it might be said also that he did not try to take his contemporaries with him. In fact, it might be said that he broke the stem of his life right where it joins the roots. Further, it might be said, one way he did this was by breaking the guild mode of the artist's life—that he set up the artist as “gentleman,” as liberated—liberated even beyond the gentlemen of his time, liberated all the way to rootlessness. And it was here, in the ultimate severing of the artist's commitment to human service, that the stem was broken.

The stem of a plant: all it does is connect the roots and the leaves. All it does is exchange the two energies: the energies of sun and air captured by the leaves, the energies of water and earth captured by the roots. The stem is the bond of union between the two; the stem of the plant is like the morning star in the human breast. And Leonardo broke it-ultimately severing himself from the deepest needs of all human beings for the use of his work-in order to plunge himself into those deep, personal needs of his own life for mystery, darkness, isolation and flight. Further, because “no man is an island” (every truth is a cliche), he bequeathed that breaking of the stem that connects our heads full of reaching, flowering twigs, branches and fruit—the stream of our wonderful personal ideas and experiences, our expressive arts-he bequeathed to all of us since him that, if we care to aspire to the heights, we should break the stem that roots us in the depths of the lives of the men and women all around us.

And so it was more than 480 years ago that modern art was separated from the direct fulfillment of its social function, and the rootless artist became a model for every artist of high aspiration. And so it must be, when the revolution comes, that the modern art of that future age will be set once more into its social function, and the artist with feet reaching into the earth and a hand reaching into heaven-and a star shining in his breast-will be the model for every artist of high aspiration.