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Bill Moyers Interviews Mary Zimmerman on NOW. 5.30.03
BILL MOYERS: Welcome back.
MARY ZIMMERMAN: Thank you very much.
BILL MOYERS: I saw METAMORPHOSES three times since you were here. And each time I was amazed that you could bring the obscure poems of a long-dead poet, Ovid, to life on the stage today.
MARY ZIMMERMAN: Well, that's all a testament to Ovid and to the power of the stories themselves. People say to me all the time, "How can you make these old texts so vivid and so immediate?" The fact is that they're around and they have lived so long is testament to their continuing immediacy. Things that become irrelevant die. So the bad, old stories are dead. We don't know them. So the Odyssey, all these other stories are around because they remain consistently contemporary.
BILL MOYERS: But here you're asking us to connect to the notebooks--
MARY ZIMMERMAN: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: --of a man-- an illegitimate son of a Florentine landlord who was born 40 years before Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World. What makes you think a modern audience can connect to Leonardo da Vinci on the stage.
MARY ZIMMERMAN: Everyone loves Leonardo da Vinci. And particularly I think children. He's a figure of such inventiveness, such vitality, such-- endless curiosity. You know, I think about Leonardo-- like when all of us are young and we're children, we-- we ask questions like, "Why is the grass green? And why is the sky blue? And why is the water in the lake blue but when it comes out of the faucet it's clear?" And then eventually we just go, "Mm, I don't know. I don't-- I can't-- I don't know."
We just get habituated to it. The world becomes habitual to us. I think for Leonardo in this really unique way, the world never became a habit to him. It never bored him. Nothing about it didn't interest him. He never stopped asking those questions and being provoked to questions by the world, by the natural world.
BILL MOYERS: Why do children connect to him?
MARY ZIMMERMAN: I think-- for one thing, he was a bit of a child prodigy himself. He was already making little monsters-- by putting wings on lizards and things like that when he was a schoolboy. And making little inventions when he was young. He just is a startling figure of vitality and range. And he feels like he's ahead of everyone all the time. Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: I'm not a Leonardo scholar, of course. But I do remember that he had this need to write down everything--
MARY ZIMMERMAN: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: --in a literary form.
MARY ZIMMERMAN: Yes. The thing about the writing in the notebooks-- and the play is entirely comprised only of language from the notebooks. So it's not a narrative. No one comes in and says-- you know-- "Leonardo, when you finish the painting." It's more like just a glimpse into his mind through this writing most of which was never intended for publication.
Not even intended really to be read by anyone else. The play is like-- is as if you were reading the notebooks all day and then you feel asleep and had a dream. And these fragmentary parts of his life and his work sort of come up. Those notebooks, because they're unconscious, under self-conscious are such a clear window into a human being's mind. So on any given page in the notebooks will be a mathematical formula or some discourse on the tides. A sketch of an angel and his shopping list. Literally.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, but--
MARY ZIMMERMAN: And we include all those things.
BILL MOYERS: Beautiful-- face of an angel.
MARY ZIMMERMAN: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Next to a shopping list.
MARY ZIMMERMAN: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: How do you explain that?
MARY ZIMMERMAN: Well, because he's like all of us. We're all scatter brains. He just went further with everything than we do. He was just interested in everything. He did have trouble completing things. I mean, that's a truism about him because he would get distracted. But he was on a mission I think to describe the world to himself in-- by two different narratives: the scientific narrative-- you know-- the engineering, mathematical narrative, how things work. And then also through the representational pictorial way of representing. And he never got to the end of that project.
And he knew that he never could. That he could not create life. In his beautiful writing on how to make a flying machine he writes forever and ever, "You should do this and you should do that. And a bird is an instrument working according to certain formulas. And if you do those formulas you should be able to fly."
And it goes on and on. And then at the very end it says, "The only thing lacking in your instrument for flying will be the life of the bird itself." And there's such melancholy in that. And the same time a kind of sweetness because the world provides us with more than we can know and more than we can create.
BILL MOYERS: The wings of birds held a great fascination for him.
MARY ZIMMERMAN: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: They-- they were important were they not--
MARY ZIMMERMAN: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: --to his own psychological.
MARY ZIMMERMAN: Well, the notebooks have very few personal recordings in them. They're not diaries of activities everyday. But there are two notable exceptions to that. And one of them is a very famous little passage in which he says-- he uses the word "kite" which is a type of small falcon so I'll use that word.
He says, "Writing about the kite seems to be my destiny since it seems to me that when I was in my cradle a kite flew in to me and opened my mouth with its beak and struck me several times with its tail inside my mouth." And-- you know-- Freud wrote an entire book about that. And then many people have written entire books about Freud's book. And many people have many things to say about that. You know--
BILL MOYERS: But Freud projected it into some kind of Oedipal complex didn't he?
MARY ZIMMERMAN: Yes, very-- very bad Oedipal complex and having to do with castration and all kind so things. Molestation as a child and all-- all kinds of things. I think after spending all of this time with this image, I have come to the belief that it just happened. That it isn't a fantasy.
And even if it just his own narrative of himself it's an incredibly astute narrative of himself done in a sort of image. And by what-- by that I mean that I think-- I like to believe that it is a moment of divine enunciation--
BILL MOYERS: Enunciation?
MARY ZIMMERMAN: Enunciation of genius. And at the same time simultaneous implantation of genius. That the bird went to his mouth. And whether that actually happened or not he seems to be saying about himself through this dream or fantasy or story about himself the one-- you know-- one of two that he records, that he was touched in some way.
BILL MOYERS: Kissed by God someone would say--
MARY ZIMMERMAN: Kissed. That something touched him. And it had little wings, you know? It's an angelic little figure--
BILL MOYERS: He was possessed with this spiritual force--
MARY ZIMMERMAN: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: --that generated in him an insatiable thirst for knowledge.
MARY ZIMMERMAN: Yes. A huge thirst for knowledge that he-- he sought through all different means both the pictorial, the representative and the discursive and the written. The descriptive, the mathematical. All these different paradigms for explaining the world to yourself, he tried all of them. He did all of them.
BILL MOYERS: He wrote a treatise about painting. He wrote a treatise about architecture. He wrote a treatise about the human anatomy.
MARY ZIMMERMAN: Yep.
BILL MOYERS: He wrote a treatise about mechanics. I mean, we are talking about someone who was a genius.
MARY ZIMMERMAN: Yes, he was. It's almost very hard to get your mind around him because you think of all the science he did and all the observation he did. And then when you think of classical, old-timey paintings like paintings that you see in the museum-- you-- you don't see it as looking different from Leonardo.
Because after Leonardo, painting changed. And what we think of as classical painting is-- is from Leonardo. If you look at his contemporaries-- like a face of an angel from his contemporaries and then his face of an angel, it's such a forward leap. People in his day didn't believe his paintings were paintings.
They thought that you were looking through mirrors into a window and people were posing because they were so real. They were molded and had light and shadow and dimension and color and shade. And dynamics in the-- in the-- in the way the body was posed. This life in the body that was so new. And so there's all of that.
BILL MOYERS: I'll try to ask you, in fact, what is your own take on the smile on the face of his Mona Lisa?
MARY ZIMMERMAN: You know-- I like the smile of the Mona Lisa. And I think she's beautiful. I think that that painting has accrued stories, as accumulated stories and accumulated projection. And the fact is that the longer that you look at something, the more-- the more you meet it halfway.
It's giving you something and you're giving it something. And that painting now has been given so much that she can't help but hold it and reflect it back. What I'm trying to say is that I love that painting. I think it's a beautiful painting. I don't have a sort of magical feeling about it the way some other people do.
BILL MOYERS: Nor do I. But my favorite of his-- he only left 17 paintings as I remember--
MARY ZIMMERMAN: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: My favorite is-- is-- The Last Supper. And it's my favorite because all the apostles there are looking-- you know-- agitated. They-- they-- they don't quite know what's going on. Here's Jesus looking very serene, very composed, almost out of this-- out of the-- action. And then on the other side there's Judas who, like Jesus, is isolated and lonely because he does know what is going on. And the way he isolates those two protagonists.
MARY ZIMMERMAN: He's a very dramatic painter. I mean, they are in action. And he has long passages that we do in the play about how the hands and arms must in all their action display the intention of the mind that moves them. And he talks about how the gestures in painting should be appropriate.
And that your paintings should have gesture just like an orator who's wishing to persuade someone of something must gesture. Otherwise he will seem dead. And he says paintings without gesture are twice dead. Dead because not alive and dead in lack of gesture. And he's someone who really could put his theory into practice.
BILL MOYERS: I know also that the theme of da Vinci was knowing how to see. He felt the human eye was the most acute, the most sensitive organ in the human being.
MARY ZIMMERMAN: He also felt that it was the window to the soul. And he has a beautiful passage where he talks about how the soul and we instinctively feel that that sense is the most important. Because within-- when anything threatens us, he says, we don't immediately cover our heart or our ears or our mouth or our nose. We cover our eyes.
And not only do we cover them, we turn away sharply. We close our eyes. He-- he really had it in for the eye.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, looking at something for a long time is the way you come to know it and-- and to love it.
MARY ZIMMERMAN: Yes. Great love springs from great knowledge. And if you little know a thing you can love it only little or not at all.
BILL MOYERS: Intense attention.
MARY ZIMMERMAN: Yes, intense attention which is a form of love.
BILL MOYERS: You remember that line in Willy Loman in-- in DEATH OF A SALESMAN where Willy Loman's wife says of her despairing husband, "Attention must be--"
MARY ZIMMERMAN: Yes, "Must be paid." Yes, that's right. She does. Well, attention is-- is love. Love is attention. They're the same things. And Leonardo's project to me is-- is nothing more-- or less than a celebration of the world and its vastness and its riches and its depths which is unfathomable. But he never stops trying. And that's why he's a-- that's why he's such an attractive character. In fact, the only kind of whining or complaining he does in his notebook is about lack of time. And he sometimes says, "I've wasted my hours. I don't have enough time."
BILL MOYERS: He died younger than I am now. I mean, that-- that-- that hits you-- his language, so different--
MARY ZIMMERMAN: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: --from the language of television, of commercials, of movies, of films which are so swiftly moving and-- and built upon the sensory perception of the moment and then it's gone.
MARY ZIMMERMAN: Right. Things are moving too fast for me even now. Like MTV's moving too fast. Like there's just-- each shot's a few frames too short for me almost to perceive it. But he stared at something 'til that something cracked open and revealed itself to him.
There's a transaction involved in that kind of looking which is the same kind of transaction that happens in the theater. Because you have a fixed gaze, a fixed point of view in your theater seat. Very different from the movies or television.
And theater cracks open what's happening. You sustain your attention long enough that a transaction happens between you and the stage across the footlights. Which is similar to the mystery being revealed when you look at something long enough. It's a different-- it's a different form of stimulation than something happening all the time coming at you all the time.
BILL MOYERS: Now, with television, with this medium, the stimulus comes from that motion of the changing images.
MARY ZIMMERMAN: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: In the theater, the stimulus comes from--
MARY ZIMMERMAN: Emotion happening inside yourself. Of you being moved.
BILL MOYERS: But that--
MARY ZIMMERMAN: Literally moved.
BILL MOYERS: --Can an audience so accustomed to MTV, to television commercials, to fast-moving football games, instant repeats and replays. Can an audience-- you think an audience can sit still for what? Hour and a--
MARY ZIMMERMAN: Hour 15 minutes or 20 is all my play is. But there's something it shocks me that theater does survive. But it's obviously doing something very profound that television and movies aren't. And what-- what the theater's always about is transcendence.
Because you have to grant a kind of grace to what you're seeing as being real when you know it's not real. When there's all kinds of artificiality that you're surrounded by which the movies and television are very good at erasing and making things seem natural. The theater you know you're in a black box. And yet you're being transported to the vasty fields of France.
And the whole love of the theater, the pleasure of the theater is the tension between what you know is there intellectually and what you're allowing yourself to believe. And that allowing yourself to believe is a form of intimacy which everyone is sharing in an unspoken way.
BILL MOYERS: Is there a drawing that drew you in? A particular-- is there a particular drawing that became one of your favorites out of his notebooks?
MARY ZIMMERMAN: You know, I love so many of them so much. There's old men's faces that I love. There's also the-- The Fetus in the Womb. There's something very provocative about that. But it also reminds me of the image of Leonardo leaning into a cave and in the end perhaps going into that cave. The womb-like feel of it for me. The return to our origin which he speaks about and speaks about in our play.
He says that-- he says that-- "Those of us who long for the next week and the next year and we think things are too slow in coming. And we can't wait for time to pass don't realize that we're longing for our own destruction." But then he says, "Yet we shouldn't be sad about this because this longing of-- for our own destruction is the part of us inside ourselves that belongs to the Earth. And it wants to get back to the Earth. And so we're leaning in towards that all our lives." Which I think is really beautiful.
BILL MOYERS: Do you find in him a union between science and the soul?
MARY ZIMMERMAN: Absolutely. Absolutely. Yes. I mean, he knew that his painting had everything to do with how things work in the world. And how things work in the world had everything to do with making his paintings better. Knowing that those two things would help.
And he also says really pretty things about-- you know-- we can't know the mind of God. But we shouldn't despair because there's so many marvelous things that we can devote our attention to figuring out how they work. And-- you know-- he wasn't looking for the unifying field theory.
He wasn't looking for the big string theory. He was very, very content to look at how a leaf turns over to the sun. Look at how colors change when they're next to each other. Look at the expressions on people's faces in bad weather and how they look more beautiful in bad weather than in good weather. I mean, he's in a-- I think a very celebratory action his whole life.
BILL MOYERS: What little I have read of the Notebooks suggests that he came to the conclusion that creation was the result of a prime mover, of a primo motiro, as he called it.
MARY ZIMMERMAN: Yeah, yeah.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think that is so? And do you think that?
MARY ZIMMERMAN: I do think that scientists-- the very best first-rate ones to me and the ones that capture the public imagination the most always end up back at God. Like the closer in they go, the deeper and more complex everything seems. And the more awe-inspiring it is. Like figuring out the mechanics of a plant doesn't make you think the plant is banal. It makes you think the plant's miraculous.
BILL MOYERS: To me the great mystery is genius. What makes a genius? Do you come to any conclusions?
MARY ZIMMERMAN: Oh, a little bird flies through the window. I mean-- you know-- it's an odd-- it's an odd word. And-- I think it's-- isn't it related to genie? I mean-- there's a kind of working miracles or Leonardo says in his notebooks, "I wish to work miracles." At one point he says that. There's a drive toward creativity and towards changing how we see the world. It's a sort of a magician.
BILL MOYERS: And where did it come from? This curiosity? This drive?
MARY ZIMMERMAN: You know, I'm content that it just is. I mean, I'm just really content that there was a Leonardo as there was a Shakespeare. Equally difficult--
BILL MOYERS: Mozart.
MARY ZIMMERMAN: Mozart. You know? And do you ask yourself sometimes like did Leonardo know he was Leonardo? Did he know he was Leonardo da Vinci? Did Shakespeare know that he was Shakespeare? And I feel in both cases probably yes. They kind of knew.
BILL MOYERS: I will be there on opening night. What do you hope I take away?
MARY ZIMMERMAN: I hope you take away a-- an alertness and a-- an awakeness and a-- to the world. And a sense of like, "I wanna pay attention to things." And I hope that you go outside and you see the people on the streets in the bad weather looking crank you and you think that they look beautiful because that's-- Leonardo thought they looked best in bad weather. He thought the light was best.
BILL MOYERS: The play is THE NOTEBOOKS OF LEONARDO DA VINCI. The playwright is Mary Zimmerman.
MARY ZIMMERMAN: Well, the writer is really Leonardo. I'm just the director.
BILL MOYERS: Thank you very much.