On Participation: East-West

In his final writings, Eric Voegelin was preoccupied with paradox as an irreducible aspect of his study of participation, the classical symbol of man’s identity in light of divinity. Participation is not open to conceptual clarity, partly because one of the terms of the relationship – God – eludes univocal definition, and partly because the relationship between man and God is a process without a known beginning or end. Language is part of the problem, but it is inescapable; conscious beings know what they know via language. Considering participation, one feels the need for a super-category that embraces both terms, man and God. The third term is reality. So in considering participation, or what Voegelin calls “the complex experience,” he writes: “In the complex experience . . . reality moves from the position of an intended object to that of a subject, while the consciousness of the human subject intending objects moves to the position of a predicative event in the subject ‘reality,’ as it becomes luminous for its truth” (18: 29-30).

That is both the most articulate sentence on the subject of reality in the unfinished manuscript and also the most obscure. It states with stunning concision the problem wrestled with by philosophers in the millennial search for reality. It shows by example the difficulty philosophers have had with clarifying in language the central structure of the problem of reality. Voegelin calls it “the paradox of consciousness,” or more fully “the paradoxical structure of consciousness in its relation to reality” (29).

In short, for Voegelin, consciousness is embodied, that is, located in the body of the philosopher. Reality is out there, considered as an object of thought by the philosopher. But the body, and the consciousness in it, is real, too. So in a second “sense” of the word reality, reality is the space where the event of participation happens. Hence the paradox of reality.

He goes on to argue that while we don’t have a word for this equivocal sense of reality, Plato coined the term “metaxy” for it. Plato imagined the space of “reality” as “between” (metaxu) and furthermore could imagine a spiritual identity sponsored by the between of reality called the mixed being or “daimon.” Those who participate in the between are demonic, as it were. So we can see what happens to the philosopher when he grapples with the paradox of reality.

Voegelin was clearly invested in the between as a way to resist the tendency of “philosophers” to dogmatize, to pretend they could lay out reality in so many sentences. And not only “philosophers”: the dogma of modern political movements showed a tendency in modernity to avoid dealing with the paradox of reality in their efforts to build powerful movements out of the power invested in the masses. In his analysis, he traced the awareness of the paradox back to ancient sources in Greek philosophy, but under the concept “leap in being” he could argue that a pre-philosophic grasp of the paradox was evident in many cultures, even in such texts as the Tao de Ching.

Like many readers of Voegelin, I have spent a lot of time studying his texts on participation, and particularly his last work, In Search of Order (left unfinished at his death in 1985). I have noticed that the opening is a riff on Augustine on the “beginning.” I have noticed that the opening is a temporal model not a spatial model like the “between.” I have followed Voegelin’s analysis back into the origins of classical philosophy. I have written essays on participation for a scholarly journal.

That was all done outside business hours. The active and the contemplative lives are ever at odds, and my wandering life as an editor and writer interrupted my consideration of Voegelin’s search for the reality of consciousness as “metaxy” or as I will say here, “between.”. At the same time, the “between” has a life of its own, and I had become aware of the paradox, and I kept running into it in my work.

I kept discovering “betweens” in the texts that came across my desk. I gradually came to understand that in struggling with the realities of their given subjects, writers get snarled up in the paradox. The language keeps promising more light, more light. They pretend the problem they are dealing with is an object independent of their consciousness; or they privilege their consciousness and short-change the objectivity of their subject. Aporia were often met with spectacular displays of selfhood. Editing for me became a process of helping my authors relate their writing (object and process) to what Voegelin came to call “the complex of consciousness-reality-language.” The upshot of Voegelin’s search became a practical tool.

Then at times my job was publishing and writing about works that had been successfully published. I began to see that really good writers knew their way intuitively around the paradox; as a books editor I learned to work with their awareness to make their books even better, and as a reviewer I learned how to contextualize their achievements in light of the paradox, often without so much as a word about paradox or reality or consciousness.

I made historical discoveries along the way. One of the most fascinating discoveries was the understanding of the paradox in ancient China, starting with the fourth century BCE and continuing through the first millennia CE, the great age of Chinese poetry. I would hold forth in my continuing education classes at Brown University, excitedly presenting poems by, say, Li Po (701-762):

Birds have vanished into deep skies.

A last cloud drifts away, all idleness.



Inexhaustible, this mountain and I

gaze at each other, it alone remaining.

(translation, David Hinton, Classical Chinese Poetry, FSG 2008, 187).

The process of coming to terms with the question is eloquently developed in this poem. To use Voegelin’s language, as things disappear from the space of the between, the tension becomes transparent for the poles and at last the “It” moving through the thing world becomes luminous in consciousness. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect evocation of the quest(ion).

Indeed, given Voegelin’s idea of “the question,” if you bring your own participation in the question to such poems, the reading experience becomes luminous for the truth of the quest(ion). The thrill of the poem remains, as does the question.

Looking for secondary texts that might explain the acuity of these poems, I discovered Lu Chi’s Wen Fu: The Art of Writing (translated by Sam Hamill, Milkweed Editions, 1981/2000). In his own Preface, Lu Chi writes: “When cutting an ax handle with an ax, / surely the model is at hand.” As a symbol of participation, of the writer’s subjective/objective participation in the process of the question, this symbol of the ax handle is inexhaustible. Recall that etymologically, a poem in Greek is a “made thing.” So call Lu Chi’s “ax handle” the paradox of composition. There’s the obscurity of the figure:  unlike Voegelin’s own essay on “the beginning” it does not reveal the full complexity of the process rooted in pre-philosophic language, it explores the paradox of “making” as understanding something with the something that understands. (This is a metaxological understanding of mimesis; see William Desmond, The Intimite Universal (2016), 63 ff.)  In Lu Chi’s figure of the ax handle,  I see the luminosity of the paradox, brilliantly brought into the light of the reader’s awareness for over two millennia.

A close reading of Lu Chi reveals his acute awareness of the open-ended process of writing as participation in the question. Hamill’s “Introduction” covers, unsystematically, several key aspects of the paradox of reality. Regarding the topic participation, he quotes a scholar on Lu Chi: “But in this formulation literature is not truly mimetic: rather it is the final stage in a process of manifestation; and the writer, instead of ‘re-presenting’ the outer world, is in fact only the medium for this last phase of the world’s coming-to-be.” If you’ve absorbed the ramifications of Voegelin on participation, and followed Voegelin’s imaginative presentation of the “Beginning” at the beginning of In Search of Order, you will sense the cross-cultural equivalence. Mimesis: objective; process of manifestation, participation.

Hamill comments: “A poet seeks personal and social transformation through poetry; the poet’s art is both a gift to the writer and from the writer who understands that no great gift can be truly given or received in an emotional or intellectual void. All this is present in Lu Chi’s poem on the coming-to-be-ness of a true writer.” “Writing” is both a gerund and an object-noun: the equivocation lends the word to reflective use. The equivocation reveals the tension between writing as an object AND the process of participation. In addition, the language of “gift” is Hamill’s inspired siting of the problem in contemporary gift discourse.

The study of Lu Chi remains as an open field for students. Lu Chi, while not a poet to be compared to Li Po, did practice a style that reflects the paradox of reality. Hamill writes: “Lu Chi’s fu is that of the p’ien wen or ‘double harness’ style; the poem depends upon a kind of parallelism, often moving two ways simultaneously through the deliberate use of ambiguity: ‘Things move into shadows and vanish; memory returns in an echo.’”

That verse movingly captures the movement in the between. In the between, “things,” participating in being through becoming, come to be and pass away, and by doing so leave traces of their existence in memory/history, the sensorium of consciousness, Voegelin’s complex experience.

The idea of “moving two ways” reminds me of Lu Chi’s master-text, the Zhuangzi. Lu Chi’s Wen Fu transmitted the models of experience expressed in the symbolic language of the Zhuangzi of Chuang Tzu (ca. 369-286) to the Chinese poets of the great ages to come; according to scholars learning from Lu Chi was essential to the formation of the poets we call “classical” in China. I think this can be explained in terms of the “between.” What is transmitted in the Zhuangzi is Voegelin’s paradox of consciousness-language-reality.

As the reader of Voegelin is aware, the language of the question is always part of the problem, and the word “equivocity” (as opposed to the univocity of modern science) points to themes treated with baroque cunning in the Zhuangzi. The problem is relativism. That “leap in being” Voegelin saw in Chuang Tzu’s fellow Daoist Lao Tzu created an awareness of an order that transcends the finite order which depends on it. The tension between the two orders is irreducible. In the beginning, the final paradox: The Dao is not the Dao. Modern debates about the relativism of the Zhuangzi often get bogged down in modern relativism, which does not reflect the centrality of the Dao (everything dependent on the Dao). But read with care, Chuang Tzu handles the paradox with great finesse.

A new edition of the Zhunagzi is very helpful here. At the end of book 2 of the Zhuangzi, I read in Brook Ziporyn’s superb new edition Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings (Hackett 2009): “Once Zhuang Zhou dreamt he was a butterfly, fluttering about joyfully just as a butterfly would. He followed his whims exactly as he liked and knew nothing about Zhuang Zhou. Suddenly he awoke, and there he was, the startled Zhuang Zhou in the flesh. He did not know if Zhou had been dreaming he was a butterfly, or if a butterfly was now dreaming it was Zhou. Surely, Zhou and a butterfly count as two distinct identities! Such is what we call the transformation of one thing into another.”

The ultimacy of distinction between beings who participate in each other is not denied by the experience of participation, rather the experience depends on the distinction. The problem of the god-man endures, and a false unity is the goal of many a confused soul, and many a con artist.

In the Zhuangzi’s symbolic language, heaven walks two roads. The influence of the Zhuangzi and its influence on Chinese poets through the text but also second-order texts like the Wen Fu, is incalculable. But the Zhuangzi also influenced Japanese poetry, especially in schools of haiku in the 17th century. There’s an amusing passage in Conversations with Eric Voegelin, ed. R. Eric O’Connor (Thomas More Institute Papers/76, 1980). These conversations are invaluable because they show us Voegelin working on the problems what would become the substance of  In Search of Order, his final writing. Voegelin is being patient, focusing on the ineluctable “question” and constantly being confronted with questions that have nothing to do with the question. He had just said, “Always go back to the question. That one can do today because we have an historical knowledge of the problem which even fifty years ago we did not have. One should use that historical knowledge.”

Then one of his interlocutors says, “In a course this week we were attempting to write haiku. One can’t ask a question in haiku because doing that is too unsubtle. One must suggest the area of concern, not ask the question.”

That went nowhere. The teacher’s unhappiness with the classroom experiment reflects the confusion about haiku in our culture. The idea of “suggestion” has more French symbolism in it than Zen. In their Zhuangzi-influenced origin in Japan, haiku DO deal with “the question” in Voegelin’s sense. They deal with the complex experience through their structure, the tension between the two segments of the text; that is, the tension between contingent reality (a narrative) and the shorter one-line segment, which provides a point of orientation for considering the contingencies. This point of orientation is often a symbol of the season, which for the Japanese participated in the grand order of things.

Today, we need to understand the source of these orienting figures, for example in what Desmond explores as “the intimate universal” (see the new book by that title). The question of haiku consciousness is alive today. Of what does the wholeness of a haiku consist? So the “question” of the paradox of reality as Voegelin would come to understand it is quite within the ethos of haiku.

We can see the sensitivity to the paradox informing the question in the textual tradition of Basho, the legendary founder of modern haiku. Basho was a life-long student of the Zhuangzi. One of the touchstones coming down from the classic appears in Basho’s discourse as the meme “Awakening to the lofty and returning to the common.” As we noted, for Chuang Tzu (and Lao Tzu) the relativity of things retained distinctions. The Dao is not the Dao. The ethos of Basho’s practice was informed by the relativistic dialectic of the Zhuangzi. We can see the tension in the question “behind” the haiku in the following haiku by Basho:

Under the tree

the soup and the fish salad,

or cherry blossoms?

I take this delightful translation from a key work of scholarship, Pipei Qiu’s Basho and the Dao (University of Hawai’i Press, 2005). The tension that informs the haiku is between the common – soup and fish salad – and the lofty – cherry blossoms. Within the enveloping consciousness communicated by the haiku, the reader is awake to the lofty even whilst she returns to the common. The location of consciousness, so essential to Voegelin’s analysis of the paradox of reality, is given in the first line (“under the tree”); Basho probably had in mind the comic scene of a picnic spread covered with fallen cheery blossoms. But the mental discipline of haiku is informed by the maxim, Heaven walks two roads; the comic and the serious connect in the juxtaposition of the haiku form.

In the space then constructed by the narrative, the question arises. Not many haiku employ a question mark, but Basho never separated his role as a teacher from his role as a poet. Haiku as structure embody the paradox of consciousness. Here we have the symbol of the cherry blossom, which expresses the tensions of the between: the ideal of “cherry-blossoms” on the one hand and, on the other, the picaresque hic et nunc of the picnic beneath the cherry trees. The unresolved tension preserves the question. Haiku is a form of literature that seems ready made for the ongoing and indeed endless quest.

Reality happens in the between. Poets respond to the question as it arises in their time and place. Celan wrote (from Breathturn into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry of Paul Celan, translated by Pierre Joris, FSG 2014, 87):

A ROAR: it is

truth itself

stepped among

mankind,

right into the

metaphor-flurry.

Reading Voegelin often raises questions about orthodox Christianity. He was often asked if he were a Christian. In his heart, the question was nourished. He was also asked if he was a mystic. Some who should know call Voegelin a mystic philosopher. The between does not hold the answer but as a broad statement of the paradoxical reality of the between, I find this passage from William Desmond’s God and the Between (260) satisfactory:

“Our passage through life takes firm form, but our passing makes fluid again the forms, and the abiding porosity prior to form and beyond form offers again its never closed off chance: chance of ultimate communication between us and the ultimate. Mysticism has to do with the chance of the divine woo.”

I hear the woo in the spaces between Voegelin’s In Search of Order and the Zhuangzi. I’d call it a tradition.

Posted in Celan, Chuang Tzu, Li Po, Lu Chi, Voegelin | Leave a comment

Poems Think Outside the Box

 

IMG_4287 (1).jpg

This is page 1 of Jan Zwicky, Wisdom and Metaphor. The Necker Cube figure reappears throughout the text, but only on page 1 do we get the quote from Wittgenstein’s Last Writings on the Philosophy of Psychology.

“Astonishment is thinking.” This riffs on Aristotle, of course. But thinking about the Necker Cube often loses its astonishment, at least as Zwicky uses it. She’s interested in the “internal” relations between the two aspects of seeing (Gestalt) : the box headed down to the right or up to the left. The Necker Cube helps her prove a point in philosophy.

But I think Wittgenstein’s point — “astonishment is essential to a change of aspect” —  directs us to the “outside” of the figure — to the fact that it can be taken both ways. Not at once, of course; but “transcendently” — apart from the time of the instant; it’s as if the only name we can give to the potential change of aspect is astonishment.

This kind of thinking illustrates  what I call “the habit of poetry.” In reading a poem, analyzing it, rereading it, over and over, we find it inexhaustible. As language, it points beyond itself to the hyperbolic dimension. People who read and write poetry have learned how to “see” poems as both finite structures and as participating in what Rowan Williams calls “the hinterland” of language. It’s almost as if the “tight’ construction of a poem — like the Necker Cube — tries to contain what is beyond it. Only the Necker Cube is NOT open to more than two aspects; Zwicky is right about that. But a poem?

Poems think outside the box. The wonder of a great poem only grows.

Posted in Astonishment, Uncategorized, Wittgenstein | Leave a comment

“The Habit of Poetry”: Notes on Duhig’s “The Full Weight of the Law.”

 

The Full Weight of the Law

i.m. Manuel Bravo

Let me be weighed in an even balance. But I was not.

The scales fell from my eyes while Justice stayed blind,

 her scale pans pennies lifted from a dead man's eyes.

My lawyer didn't show and I was mute at my tribunal.

 


When I came to this land of [uz] I learned its language,

its poetry, Shakespeare, King James' Bible, its weather:

By the breath of God frost is given, He saith to the snow,

Be thou on the earth; likewise to the small rain. In time,




I even got to like it. Hast thou entered into the treasures

of the snow? Or has though seen the treasures of the  hail?

Hail like uncut diamonds from my home, blood diamonds.

More than it siling, I liked rain merciful, that droppeth slow.

 


I found out I had lost but that my son Antonio could stay

if I should die. So my immortal soul was a small forfeit,

as light as that feather of truth in those scales of Anubis

we saw o n a papyrus scroll on our visit to Leeds Museum.

 


God stretcheth out the north over the empty place and

hangeth the earth upon nothing. With its twisted sheets,

I weigh myself in Yarl's Wood detention center stairwell,

my soul chooseth strangling, and death rather than life.

This poem shows us an aspect of “the habit of poetry” in our culture. By its structure, it questions the “habit” by exploring the spaces between the culture of a given “tongue” — the English language as an embodiment of English culture — and the poet’s habit of questioning the identity of language and reality. To discover how the poem explores the habit of poetry we start with the topic of poetic technique. The habit of poetry is a habit of dealing with language not merely using it.

The poems in Ian Duhig’s The Blind Road-Maker repay the kind of attention paid to “good poems” but technical analysis is not enough. The poems raise conceptual issues which turn out to be “formal” issues and so, in a sense, technical. The word “technique” has lost its 50’s lustre, but we can resuse it to advantage as we consider “The Full Weight of the Law.”

First, the voice. The voice is a technical achievement. This is not the poet’s voice. This is the voice of Manuel Bravo, “a Leeds asylum seeker from Angola, who fled to the UK after his pro-democracy activity led to attacks on his family.” I take this from the note to the poem. The note goes on, but the poem covers the same sad story, so I won’t repeat it. You should have a copy of the book anyway.

The opening of the poem looks back to a moment of revelation, when the speaker realized that Justice, in his case, is blind. He has not been weighed “in an even balance” though the language he has learned makes him believe it should be so.

There’s language, then there’s language.

The voice is straightforward, perhaps disembodied: “I found out I had lost but that my son Antonio could stay / if I should die.” He found that out. We protest: NO! But Manuel Bravo, being who he was, proceeded. “So my immortal soul was a small forfeit,/ as light as the feather of truth in those scales of Anubis / we saw on a papyrus scroll on our visit to Leeds Museum.”

Who was Manuel Bravo?

Do we resent such eloquence, such naivete, from the Angolan refugee? Do we doubt the poet now? Or ourselves? Our language? What is it with this language. Duhig’s technique raises so many questions! The heavy irony: “my immortal soul . . . light as the feather . . .’ “The full weight of the law.”

Why all the Bible passages in italics? Do words have a life of their own? Are they myths? How to do things with language, says the huckster: Does language do things with us?

But these are new words in a new language for Manuel, full of the promise of a new life. Manuel had studied the language of the Bible to become a citizen, apparently. But he also believed the language of the Bible. “God stretcheth out the north over the empty place and / hangeth the earth upon nothing.”

The words communicate myth, value, vision. King James’ Bible. You are in England now. How many people have died because of that book when it was new, revolutionary, as we say? You are part of English history now; the words ring in your mind, wring your mind.

As my friend Jill Pearlman points out, the Biblical language is from the book of Job. Knowing this — knowing Job — opens questions beyond the “fact” that these are quotes from the English Bible that Manuel had come to love in the process of seeking asylum.

Is Manuel a “Job” figure? The fit is not tight, depending on your interpretation of that great literary text. But there’s more.

Manuel stretched himself and hung himself. The immemorial concept of “nothing” in the creation narrative is brought into line with the narrative of suicide. Language can do this . . . to us.

Out of the dense doubleness of the technique — language as object, language as subject —  arise many good questions, answerable too, in a sense, perhaps. Only not by the poem. The technique of the poem is not about answers, does not produce answers. It produces . . .?

The texture is denser than I’m suggesting. What I am interested in is the technique. Technique works; so far the poem is about how language works on us, its technique. Something other is summoned by the technique. The quotes are quotes: eloquent, but still quotes. The voice of the poem is that of a dead man. How does the poem overcome such dead weight? Eloquence? Language for its own sake? Melodrama? Liberal guilt? The voice is garbled, but the drive of the poem admits no check.

Duende. When I was reading the poem I was also reading, as I have been lately, Jan Zwicky’s Wisdom and Metaphor. It too is full of quotes. She quotes Lorca: “The duende’s arrival always means a radical change in forms. It brings to old planes unknown feelings of freshness, with the quality of something newly created, like a miracle, and it produces an almost religious enthusiasm. In all Arabic music, whether dance, song, or elegy, the duende’s arrival is greeted with energetic cries of Allah! Allah! . . . And in all the songs of the south of Spain the duende is greeted with sincere cries of Viva Dios! – deep and tender human cry of communication with God by means of the five senses, thanks to the duende, who shakes the body and voice of the dancer ….”

What this poem, the technique of this poem, causes to happen, for me, is the arrival of the duende. The savage irony of the quotes over against the innocent contingencies – and the absolute betrayal of justice (and the poem knows something about absolutes) – creates a freshness of brutal rawness, of actual happening. The poem becomes a space, an opening, where we see . . . ? What?

Start over. The contrast between the narrative and the italics opens an abyss between meaning and fact, and meaning and meaning. And again, this is a dead man speaking. Or is it the voice of duende? Anyway: He has danced the dance in his death by self-strangulation. It is fulfilled; he has fulfilled his self.

We are appalled.

Lorca says that duende shows up in arts like poetry, for “these arts require a living body to interpret them, being forms that are born, die, and open their contours against an exact present.” The habit of poetry is embodied: habits become instinctive over time — and the “exact present” in which the habits of poetry are engaged becomes a question once the poem has been made through and through. The phrase “exact present” points to the interface between the “forms” nourished by the habit of poetry and the pressure of time, time as “crisis,” that prevails on the poet and galvanizes the habits of poetry to produce a poem.

Posted in Ian Duhig, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The “Perfection” of Eleanor Hooker’s “A Tug of Blue” — and a 9th-century Irish lyric

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I tweeted today that Eleanor Hooker’s new book “A Tug of Blue” had arrived and that the poems had a certain kind of “perfection” that involved the simultaneity of formal and moral aspects. This must have sounded strange! We don’t use the word “perfection” these days outside hyperbolic praise; nor do we use “moral” and “formal” very often in discussions of poems. Probably most people read it as a “blurb” and took no offense. But I think I can figure out why my tweet had those discomfiting words in it.

There’s a language of praise to which “perfect” belongs. The word etymologically means
“made through and through”; and this significance would point to the other problem with that I said, the idea of a poem being simultaneously both formally and morally perfect.

First, “perfect,” aside from its etymological roots, involves terms like “good.” They function in various circumstances: a good meal, a good lover, a good parent. A second aspect of perfection terms is that they are “achievement” terms. They measure the degree to which the individual FAILS to live up to the standard implicit in the contextual meaning. The food at the new restaurant is pretty good: we judge the meal by a standard. This openness involves the ongoing judgement: the degree of goodness is always on a sliding scale. (I’ve learned a lot about perfection terms from Stephen Mulhall’s THE GREAT RIDDLE.)

In the case of Eleanor’s new poems, the category includes, for example, in my experience anyway, the “anthology of Early Irish lyrics titled “The Finest Music” (ed. Maurice Riordan). The title obviously uses the rhetoric of “praise” and praise often engages the idea of perfectibility (or perfection). This 9th century lyric translated by Thomas A. Clark comes to mind:

cold mountain rough feral black

wolves and winds howl in its glens

howl about its high places

the stag bellows in autumn

in bewilderment of gold

herons sit by its waters

The poem opens with a rather uncomplicated description of “cold mountain.” At the same time “uncomplicated” doesn’t quite cover the rhetoric of the sequence of “rough feral black” — this is just outside the norm and so expressive of something uncommon. The whole poem works this way into a sense of rare experience. The process of arriving at such a rare state of perception we experience in light of accepted modes of “perfection” — perfection is the extreme of a range of experiences.

The poem goes on to “fill in” the space created by the description. Intensity is created by specifying the source of the wonder: the blended sounds of wolves and winds; the repetition of “howl” and the distancing of the sound “in its high places” — all this combines in a sound image that is solidified in a common image of the bellowing stag. There’s an elegant telescoping of sound in the first five lines of the poem.

The final two lines, astonishingly, quiet every thing down. The feel of this “couplet” would almost create a sensory gap just when we expected a climax. The word “bewilderment” however captures the subjectivity of the intensification of the imagery. Who is bewildered? “In bewilderment of gold” is “difficult” in the sense that unlike the previous language of the poem it is not strictly clear; an “equivocation” is involved. That equivocation is somehow “perfected” or given a local habitation and a name in the final image of herons “sitting” by its waters. Are they “bewildered” as they “sit’ between the sounds of wind, and wolves and stags and their own waters?

I’d say then that this 9th century Irish poem involves us in a moral ecology. Not “moral” in terms of “morality” but moral in terms of our appreciation of the “perfectibility” of the image TOWARDS the ontological state conveyed by “bewilderment of gold” as fleshed out by the iconic image of “herons sit by its waters” — an almost “sacred” image; and again, the “almost’ is part of the “perfect” language of the poem.

Regardless of the original, Clark has employed a rich language of “perfection” that moves the contemporary reader in ways befitting the expectations we have of the lyric.

One can’t help think, “anachronistically, of Yeats. Poetry involves our sense of perfectibility in our aesthetic memories, so maybe we don’t have to apologize for the “anachronism” of our appreciation. The ancient poem moves from a seasonal image of “cold” to a more universal image of “bewilderment of gold.”

This gold standard, so to speak, was “behind” my blurb. In the Tweet I photographed the poem “Skipping Stones.”

The poem involves a little story about the poet removing to her special place — where she experiences the delicious partnership with the place in solitude — being interrupted — syntactically unannounced — by a “She.” There’s some wonderful footwork executed by Hooker at this point.

Skipping Stones

A rare day and the lake is a tug of blue

and the haul of water is a tow of sky,

and I stop in my quiet place

to skip stones, mindful of change.

She doesn't pass by, she stops to say

they're having a bash to which

everyone we know is going and,

well, since its up to her ...


I retreat to my quiet place,

mindful of change, aware that

the multiple bounce of stones is

dependent on the angle at which

they're thrown, and the object

is to skip as many times

as possible, before sinking.

The ambiguity of the “She” and the equivocation of the pronouns — she, they, we, everyone — sketch out the dialogical moment as perhaps “subjective”: the “She” could well be an aspect of the poet’s self, tempting herself away from “my quiet place.” This is the mark of the “modern” — this severe self-consciousness mapped by the grammar of the language. The same grammar, I note, that governs our use of perfection terms. The “retreat” after the interruption goes more deeply into the private self before it returns to the “law” of possibility governing all events in this world. The “sinking” feeling is there BECAUSE of the perfectibility of the moment as one skips stones.

The poise of the poem between “mindfulness of change” and the perfecting of one’s ability to skip stones (towards infinity?) gives the poem an elegant moral compass. And so my sense of a fusion of moral and formal elegance in at least this poem was not too far off . . . .

I think if you look at that poem “objectively” you will see a kinship with the Ninth-Century poem. “A rare day” — a conventional opening BUT one that engages the “perfectible” use of “rare.” The balance of the first line and the second line moves into the equivocal language of poetry: “the lake is a tug of blue / and the haul of water is a tow of sky, / and I stop. . . .” While the ancient poet did not use metaphors to convey his sense of things, the intensification of the landscape is something they have in common. And so on and so on. They also share “mindfulness of change” — the poems are a response to a happening in the real world, the world of finite individuals, the world “between” the brute fact and the fulfillment of our desires. Hooker’s swerve in “I retreat to my quiet place, / mindful of change ….” sets up the final “metaphor.” The “object” when skipping stones “is to skip as many times / as possible, before sinking.”

The “moral” aspect of this poem reminds one of Frost’s stoic narratives. And yet the sense of “perfection” enlivens the language and the structure of the poem-as-poem.

Given the occasion of the poem — the interruption of a quiet day by someone inviting the poet to a “bash” — the word “skip” has ambiguity that provides insights into the state of mind of the poet, a state of mind in keeping with “my quiet place” but in the final image open to the inescapable fact that after however so many skips the stone always sinks — as if in defeat? exhaustion? relief? Or is it the poet who sinks?

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Spaces of the Imagination and Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) is considered one of the greatest American poets, perhaps a third after Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. He had something of both: a sharp metaphysical wit and a broad generous embrace of the spectacle of humanity. The former is more often noticed than the latter, however; Stevens, especially in his later, longer poems, can be difficult, if not infuriating to read.

I believe Stevens’s difficulty has roots in his ultimate beliefs. Beliefs were few for Stevens, but his poetry sometimes seems haunted by an unconscious search for beliefs; “order” is a key word for Stevens. It took most of a lifetime to bring his “rage for order” (a phrase from his second,1936 book, Ideas of Order) into line with his aesthetic principles. The concept of order is of course inseparable from, but in no wise defined, by politics, and Paul Mariani’s recent biography The Whole Harmonium (2016) does a good job accounting for Stevens’s shifting political opinions; as to party, Stevens was a Republican, but one who responded to Truman’s victory over Dewey by acknowledging that the ultruism of the Truman party was probably the greatest force for good in the world at that time. In the academy today, with its prickly sensitivities to hierarchies of power, Stevens is a hot potato or a dead white male.

The controversy among the professors may neglect Stevens’s search for and ultimate belief in metaleptic experience. Take the issue of religion. As we learn from Mariani’s biography, for all his dandyish aestheticism and skepticism, Stevens’s journey from the Presbyterian faith of his fathers in Bucks County, PA, through alternatingly jocular and pained disbelief, to his deathbed in Hartford Connecticut, comes to an end with the visits of a priest to his hospital bed. The Catholic priest, who visited him out of kindness not because Stevens was of the faith (he wasn’t), was surprised to discover that Stevens had a “marvelous idea of what God was.” For Stevens, God was “this absolute idea. Everything had been created, except for this one original uncreated concept . . .” (Mariani, p. 396). (That this idea is a version of the perennial problem called the ontological difference will be of interest to the theologically-minded reader.) In their discussions, Stevens resisted the idea of Hell in favor of a merciful God. And yet he did receive communion before he died.

For Stevens, in his resistance to contemporary Christianity, the imagination and God were not opposed; he often played with the idea that they were the same ‘thing.” But for Stevens, the word “thing” was always in play. The thing-world could become charged with a heart-breaking beauty. This mystery is his central preoccupation, and he connected it with “imagination.” Just whose imagination becomes less and less clear as time goes on.

The experience of reading Stevens can be mind-numbing; he had no intention to produce language that was a paraphrase of concepts independently believed. More than most poets, Stevens made poems that conveyed the experience of thinking. For Stevens, thinking was inseparable from feeling, from perceiving, from, you might say, being. So in trying to understand the structure of Stevens’s poems, I have found that Eric Voegelin’s idea of imagination has proved crucial. Here is a key text from In Search of Order (2000, p. 52):

“Imagination, as a structure in the process of a reality that moves toward its truth, belongs both to human consciousness in its bodily location and to the reality that comprehends bodily located man as a partner in the community of being. There is no truth symbolized without man’s imaginative power to find the symbol that will express his response to the appeal of reality; but there is no truth to be symbolized without the comprehending It-reality in which such structures as man with his participatory consciousness , experiences of appeal and response, language and imagination occur. Through the imaginative power of man the It-reality moves imaginatively toward its truth.”

This meaty paragraph is part of Voegelin’s discussion of the metaxy. Voegelin’s refusal to reduce the imagination to a “thing” – indeed, to understand it in terms of both the perceiving body and reality as a whole – would satisfy Stevens’s need to convey in imagery his experience of order. In his later poems, Stevens expansively communicates the metaleptic experience of partnership in the ongoing search.

Stevens’s meditative journey towards metaleptic clarity occupied him as his career allowed. From 1916 until his death, Stevens worked at The Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, assigned to handle surety claims; when he wasn’t traveling, he liked to spend his evenings upstairs in his private suite, where he insisted on keeping the windows open regardless of the cold, acknowledging to a correspondence that the sitting Buddha, sent to him by a friend in Ceylon, probably suffered more than he from the cold. (The house became insufferably hot in summer.) His poetry increasingly reflected his meditative habits of mind. Stevens would have appreciated Voegelin’s chiastic phrasing when he writes: “There is no truth symbolized without man’s imaginative power to find the symbol that will express his response to the appeal of reality; but there is no truth to be symbolized without the comprehending It-reality . . .”

As for the It-reality, Voegelin introduces that neologism as the key actor in what we call the metaxological narrative. For Voegelin, the metaxy is a structure informed by the paradox of consciousness. That is, the movement or narrative in/of consciousness was between univocal objectivity—thinghood out there — to an equivocal all-encompassing “space” animated by the search for truth, the space which included the partnership of God and man. The theology of the metaxy is complicated and embedded in rich figural language.

The It-reality points to something impersonal or rather trans-personal. In In Search for Order, Voegelin explains his coinage of the phrase “It-reality.” The word It, he notices, was often resorted to in philosophical texts about the search for truth; it is also found idiomatic phrases like “It’s raining.” As it happens, we find it in a comment on Wallace Stevens in a popular text, Michael Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets (1999, p. 663):

“In Adagia, his aphorisms, he goes so far as to say that poetry is ‘life’s redemption,’ after belief in God is no longer possible. It is a redemption that knows itself to be the Supreme Fiction and that nonetheless elicits belief. Like Blake he is an enemy of reason, which destroys; unlike Blake he has no metaphysic but a physic in both senses, a medicine and a material world made over, made real, taken back to what it is before habits of work and rest, of play and passion, have dulled or misshapen it. To take it back to it, the poet must first be aware of what has happened to it. Through the distorted world of dailiness he finds the real, and that is poetry, even when he does not write the poem. ‘The humble are they that move more about the world with the lure of the real in their heart.’ ”

“The lure of the real” is perhaps the kind of phrase that goes without explanation; but Voegelin’s idea of reality is central to the narrative of the metaxy as Stevens’s experienced it. For Voegelin, the search is for “symbols” of metaleptic experience. In Stevens, “reality” is always already in dialectical relation to “imagination.” In Voegelin vision of the metaxy, reality is the transformative term common to both poles: “ . . . reality moves from the position of the intended object to that of subject, while the consciousness of the human subject intending objects moves to the position of a predicative event in the subject ‘reality’ as it becomes luminous for its truth” (In Search of Order, 30). Reality moves, its passage gives shape and direction to the metaxy. In this sense, as Plato, Voegelin was a poet of the metaxy.

As was Stevens in his last poems. Many could be cited. From The Rock, see “To an Old Philosopher in Rome,” his poem about his Harvard mentor George Santayana as he lay dying in Rome attended by nuns. There are longer poems exploring the metaxy, for example the monumental “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” where his anti-Apocalypticism takes shape in Professor Eucalyptus, who says, “The search / For reality is as momentous as / The search for god.” But perhaps perfect for this occasion is this poem in which the metaleptic partnership transforms the language of romance into a philosophical confession.

Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour

Light the first light of evening, as in a room

In which we rest and, for small reason, think

The world imagined is the ultimate good.

This is, therefore, the intensest rendezvous.

It is in that thought that we collect ourselves,

Out of all the indifferences, into one thing:

Within a single thing, a single shawl

Wrapped tightly round us, since we are poor, a warmth,

A light, a power, the miraculous influence.

Here, now, we forget each other and ourselves.

We feel the obscurity of an order, a whole,

A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous.

Within its vital boundary, in the mind.

We say God and the imagination are one…

How high that highest candle lights the dark.

Out of this same light, out of the central mind,

We make a dwelling in the evening air,

In which being there together is enough.

Reading this with the above discussion in mind allows us to experience the poem as a “spiritual exercise” (the phrase is Pierre Hadot’s), and more specifically, a metaxological meditation.

The opening of the poem is suitably objective sounding; I say “suitably” because poems, and metaxical thinking, always start with the given (see Voegelin’s meditation on the beginning at the beginning of In Search of Order). The reader is asked to light “the first light of evening . . . “ We can see a man retiring to his room, turning on the lamps one by one. The “we” seems casual, rhetorical, we talk to ourselves. And: to think in a “room in which we rest,” to think – experimentally, “for small reason” – this strange hypothesis: “The world imagined is the ultimate good.” Not a transcendent being, not “Being,” but the “world imagined.” Voegelin’s search for symbols of metaleptic partnership in the search for truth.

The student of Voegelin’s metaxy will notice the effort to categorize beings within beings, the “structural” theme. Structures within structures. The univocal language of “things” becomes the equivocal language of plurivocal “things.” An extreme idea – “the intensest rendezvous.” The plural “we” begins to become, ”out of all the indifferences, one thing”: and within that thing is another thing . . . the miraculous influence.” As Voegelin says, the structures of the metaxy are paradoxical. As we will see in later essays, there are many metaxies, many betweens, the structural paradox is what they have in common.

Something pours into the room where we rest and reflect, where we forget ourselves and feel “the obscurity” – not the clarity or certitude, the “obscurity” – of the composing Other, ‘that which arranged the rendezvous.” “We” – the dialogical reflective self and also the metaleptic relationship – has become the “object” of a grander subject “in the mind.” We are now deep within a “vital boundary”: and the spatial metaphor of the “metaxy” emerges as a seeming necessity emerges at the end of thinking. Space as symbolic paradox of tensions –structures and movement. In a kind of ecstasis of insight “we say”: “God and the imagination are one.”

“We say” and light the “highest candle.” It’s not as if we have discovered a new thing in the universe. The “dark” is boundless, but within the dark is a room of light, a space we call metaxy, between dark and dark, where we experience the partnership of the erotic search for truth, where we “float ideas” as in a grand conversation, where we watch the It-reality move through the between towards the beyond.

We follow as far as we can. The consolation of being in the between – which is not a final state of resolved tensions, an apocalypse, but a satisfaction nonetheless. It is still evening. “We make a dwelling in the evening air” – the verb “make” returns us to the “poesis” of being here; and in this dwelling, “being there together is enough.” The narrative of the metaxy claims no end in gnosis, but in “being there together.” Being-there-together, a Trinitarian structure-of-structures, if you will.

 

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Sacred Realism and Czeslaw Milosz

Czeslaw Milosz once told an interviewer that during his long life he had experienced two conditions of terror: the first in Poland under the Nazi and Communist regimes, the second in the U.S. under economic terrorism.

 

In his prose and poetry Milosz responds – perhaps “resists” is a better way to put it — to all kinds of ideology that reduce human life to conceptual models that are alien to human freedom. His output in prose and poetry, fiction and memoir, was prodigious and reflects his “search for truth” by means of what as a professor he would call “polyvocalism” (as embodied for example in the novels of Dostoevsky, which he taught in his classes at Berkeley). Readers of his many books experience a liberation from the need for a universal perspective from nowhere and learn to hear many voices from many times and traditions in the search for truth. In this sense, Milosz is an exemplary metaxological writer. In his intellectual agonies and religious scruples, many heretical, he is one-of-a-kind.

 

Milosz was born in Lithuania in 1911 and in Warsaw during the war years worked for the resistance. He was raised as a Roman Catholic in a rural way of life which supplied him with images of paradise for the rest of his life. As a young rebellious poet he wrote about “catastrophe” and drew on apocalyptic forms of thought. In 1946 he enetered the diplomatic service of the new People’s Republic of Poland. After serving in Washington D. C. he returned to Warsaw and defected to the West – to Paris — in 1951. There he wrote his classic account of intellectual accommodation to the ideology of Stalinism, The Captive Mind. Some of his colleagues at the time saw this as a “defection” to the West; Milosz’s autobiographical writings – and like Montaigne, Milosz is always autobiographical—involve him in a deeply dialectical response to his own “trans-shifting” (Herrick) times. He immigrated to the U.S. in 1960, and became Professor of Slavic Languages at U.C.Berkeley. In Visions of San Francisco Bay (published in English in 1982) he writes with the radical simplicity that became Milsoz’s trademark as he matured; the ironies are thick and sometimes disarming. In the 1970s he began to translate various books of the Bible into Polish; he also published books of poetry in English and seemed to me at the time to have almost become a contemporary American poet. In 1980 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He died in 2004.

 

Reading Milosz involves a freshening sense of going against the grain, of strategic reconfigurations of key narratives. In his useful book Theology and the Spaces of Apocalyptic (Marquette University Press 2009), Cyril O’Regan defines the metaxy as a space between two other apocalyptic spaces characterized by “fullness” and “emptiness”; the first indicates the space occupied by, say, Balthasar, the second by, say, Walter Benjamin.

 

Along with O’Regan’s other books on the gnostic return in modernity, this little book is proving very useful as I develop a metaxological poetics. For example, his description of metaxical “space” as a verb is a pungent formulation recalling Eric Voegelin’s meditations in In Search of Order. As we’ve seen in earlier essays, the idea of “narrative,” which helps O’Regan differentiate the key element of reconfiguration of the original Biblical narrative, can be applied with great discretion to poetic texts. And, as demonstrated in earlier essays on Heaney and Stevens, we can see the metaxy unfolding in the “narrative” movement within the space designated by a short poem.

 

Enter Milosz. His readings of the gnostic return confound the elegant taxonomies of the theologian. With all due confessions of betrayal, Milosz remains loyal to original Biblical values as he developed a literary technique of polyvocalism as a response to ideological terror and its social institutionalizations. In practice, Milosz was open to a diversity of voices, many considered heretical; while he remained loyal to the Catholic faith of his childhood, he drew on sources such as William Blake, Swedenborg, Gnosticism, and especially Manicheanism, on which he taught an undergraduate course. O’Regan’s meticulous attention to the full array of theological responses to apocalyptics gives the reader of Milosz plenty to think about; he himself notes Milosz’s strong rejections of the idea that Blake was a gnostic. But reading Milosz in this context throws light on his intentions in response to “Ulro” — he uses Blake’s term in The Land of Ulro (English edition 1984). “Ulro” refers in Milosz to Voegelin’s “scientism: to the regime of the anti-traditional forms of experience that emerged in modernity undergirded by reductive ideologies.

 

Milosz’s polyvocalism as a response to Ulro is part of a metaxological poetics. While his personal agon may be dramatized in terms of his loyalty to his native Catholic realm, Milosz resisted the central trends of modern philosophy. The metaxy has its roots in Greek philosophy and there are plural metaxies that come into play in modernity. In attending to the irreducible fullness of experience, the contemporary Irish philosopher William Desmond is, as O’Regan notes, both poetic and encyclopedic. O’Regan’s essay on Desmond in Between System and Poetics: William Desmond and Philosophy after Dialectic (Thomas A. F. Kelly, ed,, Ashgate, 1988) is perhaps the best essay yet written on Desmond. O’Regan points out that for Desmond philosophy is a response to experiences that are primitive (that of others, evil, or value) and modes of experience that are primal (wonder and perplexity). For Desmond, the emphasis is always on experience as conceptualized by the major philosophies of the Western canon. But the roots of Desmond’s analysis of consciousness are in a radical – “root” – way of primal experience that transcends all determinations, which in fact makes all determinations possible. This radical root itself is beyond determination. For Milosz, the “sacred” is both rooted narratively (e.g. Biblical myth) and experiential wonder and imagination.

 

Because of the lucidity and richness of his analysis of experience, Desmond helps us read Milosz. Milosz’s experience of evil made him a pessimist and a student of Manicheanism; and his experience of primal wonder made him an exponent of apokatastasis, the ancient belief that all things shall be restored in the end to their identities in time. As a Catholic, Milosz was agonizingly aware that his beliefs put him at odds with the canonical teachings of the Church. As a self-consciously modern poet, he had no brief for canons. The tensions remained. Adapting a saying of his cousin Oscar Milosz, Czeslaw would often say that what matters is the search for truth.

 

The tensions informing Milosz’s sense of human consciousness are evident everywhere in his work. Also evident is what O’Regan describes, in his essay on Desmond, as a whole “open rather than closed, fissured by transcendence rather than articulating immanence, and completely mediated rather than dialectically self-mediated” (92). “Completely mediated” refers I think to the primal ethos as always in play: that is, in another vocabulary, the sacred is always there in the between. For Desmond, the metaxy reconnects each mode of experience with the primal ethos of being. This ethos is always already in play; the other ways (univocal, equivocal, dialectical), which have their truths, yet reduce it to one or the other dimension of experience. There is no final synthesis: the metaxy happens in consciousness when consciousness opens up to the source of experience beyond consciousness as shaped by the univocal, equivocal, and dialectical ways. This is not “apocalyptic” in the common sense of the term because it does not destroy or overcome the more limited ways to God; they remain important to finite consciousness. For Desmond, this final opening of the metaxy is especially relevant to how we understand our experience of great art.

 

In a word, philosophy needs great art. Of the metaxy Desmond writes, “It lives between peril and crux. As a figuring of the primal ethos, it divines the nature of the togetherness, the absolved relativity, with heed to the difference, and without forgetting the transcendence of the divine and its reserves. We need a finessed, transdialectical logos of the metaxu” (God and the Between, 117).

 

At a more granular level, Desmond’s analysis of experience into four “ways of being” – the univocal, the equivocal, the dialectical, and the metaxological – is useful for our understanding of Milosz’s polyvocalism. As I showed in earlier essays, lyric poems take shape under the sign of the metaxy: the movement within the poem is between various types of reductive consciousness and towards metaxological or full, porous consciousness. We’ve seen how a poet like Stevens explores reality in terms of the imagination. And, as we saw in the commentary on a poem by Heaney, the dimensions of the space may be thought of as “archaeological,” a figure which combines space and time.

 

In Milosz’s late lyric, “Realism,” the metaxical movement is sponsored by a meditation on works of art. As meditation, the whole poem becomes metaxological space.

 

We are not so badly off, if we can

Admire Dutch painting. For that means

We shrug off what we have been told

For a hundred, two hundred years. Though we lost

Much of our previous confidence. Now we agree

That those trees outside the window, which probably exist,

Only pretend to greenness and treeness

And that language loses when it tries to cope

With clusters of molecules. And yet, this here:

A jar, a tin plate, a half-peeled lemon,

Walnuts, a loaf of bread, last –- and so strongly

It is hard not to believe in their lastingness.

And thus abstract art is brought to shame,

Even if we do not deserve any other.

Therefore I enter those landscapes

Under a cloudy sky from which a ray

Shoots out, and in the middle of dark plains

A spot of brightness glows. Or the shore

With huts, boats, and on yellowish ice

Tiny figures skating. All this

Is here eternally, just because, once, it was.

Splendor (certainly incomprehensible)

Touches a cracked wall, a refuse heap,

The floor of an inn, jerkins of the rustics,

A broom, and two fish bleeding on a board.

Rejoice! Give thanks! I raised my voice

To join them in their choral singing,

Amid their ruffles, collets, and silk skirts,

Already one of them, who vanished long ago.

And our song soared up like smoke from a censer.

 

After the opening reference to Dutch painting, with its luminous realism, Milosz refers to the modern condition of dualism whereby what is univocally out there is also bracketed as clothed in mental draperies added by the intellect. As he argues in The Land of Ulro, this is the world of abstraction constructed by early modern philosophy.

 

The poem follows the narrative path of Desmond’s four senses of being. The univocal way leads in the narrative of consciousness to the equivocal; we doubt our senses. Greenness and treeness are essences that exist only in the mind. As we doubt, we follow a dialectic that can only undercut our very sense of self. What saves us is the painting, the art. Loyal to our experience of the art, somehow we finesse the differences and still believe. The poem becomes a metaxical space where within the narrative of the ways of being, space becomes liturgical, and the poet a priest.

 

If this is irony, this degree of irony can be disorienting to modern readers. Polyvocalism it is. It deserves another name.

 

To review the final stage of the metaxical journey: And yet this here: Nevertheless we “enter” the landscapes of realism. Though as exponents of abstraction – and Abstract art – we really don’t deserve it, we can participate in what we behold. Indeed, it is hard not to believe in its lastingness; after all, the paintings reach us over centuries of modernist deformation of consciousness. Milosz’s study of apokatastasis comes into play here as often in his works. And this, in O’Regan’s terms, is his “metalepsis” of canonical apocalyptic. His “swerve.” Swerve he does, and must, to make sense of his experience. He’s on sacred ground, guilty as sin.

 

Having once happened, these beings are. They draw on the original ethos of being. Milosz’s metaxological, ironic finesse of crippling mental habits of modernity restores a world of “luminous things” (the title of his best-selling anthology of world poetry). Following through to the metaxical space, he is “already one of them, who vanished long ago.” The poem, which began with an account of his modern alienatioin, plagued by the disfiguring figurations of univocal, equivocal, and dialectical modes, finally breaks into the metaxical space of praise.

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W. S. Merwin Questions THE ARTISAN WORLD

The Artisan World

 It turns but does not try to remember
 it does not precede or follow
 obey or disobey
 it is not answering a question
 it arrives knowing without knowledge
 it makes the pieces one by one in the dark
 there is always enough dark
 before time comes with the locusts
 the insects of comparison the improvers
 with their many legs in the dazzling air
 makers of multiplication and series
 they never touch what is awake here
 and is not waiting nor asking nor fashioned
 but is one with the uneven currents of breathing
 with the silence untouched by the rush of noise

from The Moon before Morning (2015)

 

 

The idea behind reading the between is that the world of essential human consciousness — the world we know without the reductivism of various sciences and ideologies, the  world “between” the extremes of void and apocalypse — has somehow become a lost art, at least for many of us. Social media reframes all communications in quotes. More particularly, the popular apocalyptic narrative — including the dystopian narrative — has become default. No choice between nihilism and apocalyptic? Communication outside the specializations has become shrill and not only noisy but noisome, even toxic.

But there are poets who seem to write from outside the ideologies and issue-driven points of view. I said “seem” because the issue here is not a “point of view” from Nowhere. Yet this poem by W. S. Merwin is seemingly about a “world” — “the artisan world.” Not that that phrase denotes anything determinate: “the artisan world” must be contrasted to some other world for us to get a feel for it.

The abruptness of the opening is easy to skim: it seems abstract, as if translated from an ancient text. We will return to that. As we read, we perceive a distinction between a beginning — the world of the artisans? — and an after: the world of the “multiplication and series” (the world of units, very much the monetized world but maybe even more than that). Or is THAT the “world of the artisans”?  The poem seems to be about both, before and after — and the “space” between. Twilight.

The metaphor for one of these worlds is “insect” —  beings that come in parts, “sect” referring to “cutting” in Latin, and perhaps the “sects” of orthodoxies; they are improvers but do not “touch what is awake here / and is not waiting nor asking nor fashioned.” That’s the other world as introduced in the opening.

If you have followed the imagery to this point (notice how Merwin’s syntax, and his lack of punctuation, makes following an intense act of attention), you can take in the final two lines that return to the opening, as day returns to night.This ending  places the between world of the poem in a perspective that communicates values — breathing and silence — belonging to what may be called the contemplative life.

That ending — like the endings of many of Shakespeare’s sonnets — is both elegant, comprehensive, and slightly allusive, so,  we start over, and as we do we may see something we didn’t notice the first time we read the opening:  the little word “it.” It turns; it does not; it is not; it arrives; it makes  . . . And everything it does is done before time comes–before the insects, the improvers.

So, indeed, Merwin’s little poem depends on a distinction between a Beginning and and After. A distinction as big as myth. But as historians of the idea of the metaxy such as Eric Voegelin have shown, the “It” and the Beginning, before time, are part of the “metaxological” narrative; the narrative of the between. For Merwin, this impersonal Subject is a “maker” that recalls aspects of the Tao and of Genesis as well.

What then is “the artisan world”? The world of the It and the beginning? or the world of the insects? I think Merwin wanted us to ask that question. As a distinction, it’s crucial. In any event, reading this poem is MORE than reading a “poem” . . . .

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