The Transcendental Spirit of Albrecht Dürer

The Man

Yesterday was April 6.
That date will be important for you when you reach the end of this essay.

So, yesterday, as the daily morning meditation practice ended, I spoke on two questions from students recently: “Why we keep our eyes open during Zen meditation,” and “What to do about a feeling of terror or fear, sometimes, experienced during the growth of a meditation practice”. The topics were important, and they are matters which I have needed to address on so many, many occasions before.

We captured the dialogues on video. The whole presentation seemed acceptable, the setting was good, no problems with sound, and I felt inspired. So it caused me to sit down right after practice to get these things committed before they became a file in a distant memory. I ended up sitting all day in front of the computer screen editing — unplanned! — these fresh new talks into three separate videos, creating the graphic thumbnail covers for each, and uploading the videos to YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook — the agora of the modern world where people of all ranks and ages gather for the exchange of ideas and impressions (and cat videos). But this is where people are sending their eyeballs and looking for clues to something they don’t always know what it is, so it was decided some years ago to put as much Dharma as possible out there as possible.

I was struck with sheer wonder at the whole possibility of what I was involved in, churning out these productions from home. It is still a somewhat new world for me. It felt so unreal, so awesome in its magic, that a few words spoken in a room in my home could be captured on a phone, edited, and brought to together with some bang-up visual and audio creativity, and just instantly spread out on platforms which would have it influencing people through their phones in nano-time — whether they be in Seoul, or London, or far northwestern Canada, or Iran, Russia, Greece, Algeria, or Brazil (just a few of the countries where our daily viewership watches in from). And everywhere else I will never hear of.

The magic of this instantaneous mass distribution of ideas and impressions brought strongly into my mind the image and feeling of Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). He is the preeminent demiurge of the Northern Renaissance and definitely one of my greatest intellectual (and spiritual) heroes. Dürer is, like Mahler or Beethoven or Kafka, Schopenhauer, Emerson, or Cioran, one of those figures the experience of whom, or even the thought of whom (and in Mahler’s case, even a photo of whom), can quite literally nearly bring tears to my eyes. This powerful emotive reaction is similar to feelings of love I have felt for real and existing true human breathing beings! So, more than their works themselves, as intellectual or cultural artifacts, there seems to be this unspeakable recognition in encountering something they have expressed, a gratitude unfathomable for things that the encounter with them liberated me from in this world. That is the only explanation I can come up with.

Among the many dimensions of Dürer’s life which were truly innovative, mind-bending, and even shockingly revolutionary, most people think about his extraordinary paintings, engravings, and woodblock prints (and nearly all of the last two were always drawn and carved in reverse, so that the image was printed in readable format when printed forward onto paper!). And this is with good reason. He is one of the greatest visual artists who ever lived, bar none. His pieces are not artistic creations, things of beauty, but verily worlds to be experienced and become a little lost in. Through Dürer, perhaps for the first time in human history, “the artist” is not merely a craftsperson, someone carrying out works with their hands: they are visionaries unto themselves, an intellect or scholar worthy of their own self-earned respect as thinkers and even prophets (think: William Blake, Dürer’s English son).

But here is the point: What is really outstanding in Dürer’s genius was that, in addition to his groundbreaking visual innovations, this contemporary of Michelangelo is also credited with being the first artist to use the leading communication-technology of his day (printmaking) to make his works available widely, across city-state borders and cultures vastly distant from his own. Until Dürer, the work of a painter was a singular, fixed object, hanging in someone’s home or church. It could only be “reproduced” as a much, much cruder hand-drawn simplification in some book (and books were only possessed by people of learning, a vanishing number one a continent where less than 3% of the population could even write their own name. The emerging mass-market of books produced things that were smallish, rough things, and never came even remotely close to conveying the subtlety or color or feeling of the original illustration.

For visual artists, Dürer was the first to mass-produce versions of his work which could then be sold in all of the big markets throughout Europe. His images — his ideas — were fertilized far and wide, because he employed print-presses to break up the idea of the singular, unique creation belonging to someone with the financial means to commission it or purchase it (or the sword to steal it as spoils in war). He made his teachings available to all, more widely than had ever been done on such scale by a visual artist. And he became quite a rich man, as a result.

I don’t know if Dürer was a revolutionary, in this regard. But he was immensely successful at it. Born in the right place, in the right time, he was the first to exploit the local technology to spread his teachings any way he saw fit, at whatever price. This gave him an unparalleled intellectual autonomy from his contemporaries.

So, getting back to our livestream: All day yesterday, while editing video, and from video through iMovie to finished film, and from there the various conversions and packaging to bring it to YouTube, to Instagram, and to Facebook — to the Patreon family first, and also to this blog — the feeling of Dürer’s revolutionary activity was strongly in my mind. I was having this long, extended “Dürer moment”. I kept feeling, “This is what Dürer opened for us — even a wanker like me can do this! No training, and I edit, produce, and transmit to the four corners of the earth, all in one day.” It wasn’t clear why, but he was strongly in the back of my mind as I worked. Even once when I stood up to open the window and let some air into the room while working, I looked at the gray clouds and felt like I was looking in the direction of Nürnberg (I often feel this), and felt the thought inside: “When this is over, when things open up again, let’s take a trip to Dürer’s workshop in Nürnberg again when it’s possible.”

In the evening of the same day, April 6, I was discussing with one of our local students some technical problem regarding the daily Zen livestream. We also worked hard to figure out some problems I was having converting these iMovie/Apple Keynote movie-files I had made into the mp4-format required by Instagram. He is a computer programmer, this student, and yet he was also stumped. Eventually, we figured it out, as I had figured out a similar problem when creating videos like this several days prior.

In our conversation about how to improve certain aspects of the transmission process, I marveled to him that we live in such an age as this, that we can broadcast things so widely, so easily. And — wouldn’t you know it! — I mentioned the example of Albrecht Dürer. (The student, a locally-born Bavarian educated at university, had no idea who Dürer was!) So I went into quite the disquisition on the significance of Dürer’s visual genius but also his revolutionary use of the printing press to mass-produce and convey his images all over Europe, using the busy trading networks of the day to “seed” the world with his visionary explorations. “And aren’t we all now a lot like him?” I asked. Thanks to revolutionaries like Steve Jobs, and Larry Page and Sergey Brin (I am reluctant to mention Mark Zuckerberg), aren’t we not carrying out this faculty whose door was first opened to us by the creator of the first “self-portrait”? I even whipped out the phone and Googled the “Self-Portrait with Fur, 1500” (pinned to the top of this post), to give Nico from nearby Straubing a better sense of who I was talking about.

Then we finished the video editing and I went to sleep.

Waking up today, April 7, I see in some random scrolling social media feed that April 6 was the anniversary of Albrecht Dürer’s death in 1528.