When Robert Lax was a student at Columbia University in the late ‘30s, he and Thomas Merton liked to go to jazz clubs late at night to watch jazz musicians jam. These jam sessions were more spontaneous than a regular performance, but they weren’t entirely freewheeling and they certainly weren’t chaotic. What gave them form and flow was a combination of the musicians’ training, whatever tune they were using as a base, and their presentness and mindfulness. The musicians were fully in the moment, listening and responding to each other.
When the time came for one of them to solo, he knew it, not because a leader gave a nod but because the music shifted his direction, an opening invited him to shine. In that moment, as he blew his horn or strummed his bass, he did it more intensely and more soulfully than he had before, playing, as George Clinton once said, like his mamma just died. He didn’t do it to outplay the others but because playing his best, expressing what he could best express, was the best way of both respecting and encouraging his fellow musicians. Each one playing his best brought out the best in the others.
A worrier by nature, Lax longed to be as present and as mindful, as disciplined and yet insouciant and spontaneous as those musicians were. His relationship with Merton and their other college friends gave him a taste of how a constant jam might feel: the free exchange of new ideas and views, the playing off of one another, the applauding of creative accomplishments. But college ended and his friends scattered. Merton entered a monastery. Jazz musicians were still playing, of course, but the world offered few other models of the concept Lax would come to call pure act, and his understanding of it remained more theoretical than actual.
Until, that is, he met the Crisitani family. Performers since they were young, the family’s eleven brothers and sisters were the world’s leading equestrian acrobats. Catholics all, they shared a faith and an understanding of each other built from countless hours of practicing and performing together. Each had his individual talents and personality but all were serious and sober, happy and playful, graceful and skillful, as Lax would describe them in his poem cycle Mogador’s Book.
About the skill of Mogador, the brother Lax felt closest to, he wrote:
Like the highest art,
it is a kind of play
An activity which involves
awareness and appreciation;
Its own symbolic value.
Like the prayers
of the old in wisdom,
it has the joy
and the solemnity of love.
Lax’s first book, The Circus of the Sun, was an attempt to show the relationship in spirit between the performers in the Cristianis circus and the Creation story:
“We have seen all the days of creation in one day: this is
the day of the waking dawn and all over the field the
people are moving, they are coming to praise the Lord:
and it is now the first day of creation…
He succeeded wonderfully in portraying the grace and beauty of both circus and creation, but the writing of the book did not come easily. And after writing it, he still felt far more anxious than he wanted to. To live and make his art as freely as the Cristianis did, he’d need a deeper understanding of himself and what he meant by pure act, a phrase he’d borrowed from St. Thomas Aquinas. He’d need to make a move, too: from overly commercial and distracted America to a tiny room beside the waterfront in dangerous Marseilles, and then an island far from anyone or anything he knew, in the middle of the vast Aegean.
(part two to come…)