|Benjamin Shiff's painting Life on the cover of The Cycle of Life|
A primary tenet of my perspective on the journey through life, as I describe in my book The Cycle of Life, pertains to the confluence of fate and destiny, and how conscious choice and the unexpected turns of the tide flow together. How do predetermined fate and individual destiny cohabit in one’s life, how does fate determine one’s prospects, and in what ways can the individual determine the course of his or her possibilities? Everything is foreseen, and everything is laid bare, yet everything is in accordance with the will of man, says the Talmud. Likewise, as Jung observed, something that remains unconscious in the individual psyche, may become manifest as external fate. Sometimes, what has powerfully constellated in one’s psyche, yet remains below the level of consciousness, may materialize in physical reality.
Little did I anticipate that this would become apparent in my search for a cover image, the face of the book. I traveled along rivers of time and traversed cultural continents, ending up, so it seemed, with a coverless book in my hands. Then, in a sudden bliss, I remembered a painter whose name was at the tip of my tongue. As I extracted his name, Benjamin Shiff, from the layers of my memory, I was reminded of the balance between lyric harmony and pensive concern, which characterized the dream-like painting I recalled.
As I traced the pictures on Shiff’s canvas, my eyes fell upon his painting Life (1990). Undoubtedly, I had found the grail. I understood that the frustrations of my journey had not been in vain, but were, perhaps, the psyche’s signs along the road to the picture of life’s transition. The candles’ soft light of life is poised against the painful inevitability of burning out. Yet, as long as they burn, there are shades and colors; there are the distinct faces of transient existence, and there are those of obscurity, hidden in distant nature; there is a lyrical melancholy, as well as a tense harmony. The pain of death and extinction reflects the subtle strength and beauty of life. Only an unlit candle will never burn out. A fully lived life extracts the awareness of its finality. Freud claimed, succinctly, that the ultimate aim of life is death. Mortality as the ultimate boundary of physical existence, serves as the container of human life.
In the paintings of Benjamin Shiff, the contrasts are subtle, and the opposites often blend into a tense yet congruent whole. Contrasting elements of identity, of earthly and heavenly, matter and spirit, float into each other, combining into one whole; together, yet distinct, united, yet separate - is this perhaps the human condition, as rendered in Shiff's exceptional self-portrait, 'my condition as a human'?
Sometimes the pain is hidden behind a crucified smile. What is crucial emerges from within outward appearance; conflict and struggle blend into harmony and tranquility. In one of his paintings, crucified love hovers over the wide-open mouth of anguish. Elsewhere, the light of innocence and naïve faith is contrasted with the complexity and fragmentation of knowledge.
In the aesthetics of Shiff’s paintings, light and hope merge with pensive sadness. The ordinary becomes thoughtful reflection, in which dream-like interiority finds tangible expression. There is always something hidden,secretive and elusive – a riddle, like a dream we do not understand, which calls us back, to search, to reflect and look ever deeper.
I came across Benjamin Shiff’s painting Life in May 2011, only to learn that he died in March. As it turned out, not only did we live but half an hour apart, but his daughter, Orit Yaar, is also a Jungian analyst. I knew Orit, but had no idea that she was Benjamin Shiff's daughter. With the sadness of having lost the possibility of meeting Benjamin Shiff, the “sad optimist,” in life, I hope that his painting Life, which provides The Cycle of Life with its face, will serve as a candle honoring and reflecting upon his life and work.
I wish to thank Shosh Shiff, who granted permission to feature this profound painting on the cover of The Cycle of Life.
The Cycle of Life will be released Sept. 1, 2011. It can be preordered at Amazon, or directly from Fisher King Press.