5.20.2011

Rapture & Poetry

My time is still unbounded.
And I have accompanied the rapture of the universe
As muted organ pipes
Accompany a woman's voice.

- Osip Mandelstam, trans. by James Greene

Until today (the day before the predicted Event) I haven't paid any attention to all the yap about The Rapture. It seems to be of more (comic) interest to the irreligious gabbosphere, than to soi-disant "people of faith."

One way to think about some statements of Jesus in the Gospels about the Day of Judgement, and what is called "the Rapture" (ie., to paraphrase : keep watch : no one knows when the end is coming : "on that day, one will be taken, and one will be left behind" etc.), is that they fall within a general Gospel/Biblical emphasis on a distinction between soul & body, spirit & flesh, invisible & visible, heaven & earth, eternity & time. Contrary to prevalent stereotypes - most of them originating with Christian monastics & preachers themselves - this distinction, in both Judaism & Christianity, is just that : a distinction, no more no less. It does not mean a denigration of the earth, the body, the visible, the flesh, etc. All these things from the latter half of the equation are to be accepted with joy & gratitude as gifts of the Creator. What the emphasis on this distinction of Spirit is meant to do is to restore the balance : to bring humanity back to spiritual wholeness & health, in a world overwhelmed by the fleeting & changing things of "this world." Thus the reminder of an End-Time - & the focus on individual alertness & awareness (ie. "let your loins be girded", for "one shall be taken & one left behind") - is again a kind of memento mori, and a reminder of the nearness (though invisible) of the "kingdom of heaven."

This is just one way (a low-key, common-sense way) to approach what is implied by the "Day of Judgement" exhortations in the Gospels. But I want to foreground this distinction (earth/heaven, body/spirit, visible/invisible) as an entry into what follows. I want to talk a little about poetry and "rapture". Osip Mandelstam points toward this theme, in the stanza above - from a late poem, written (not long before his final trip to Siberia & death) after listening (from exile in provincial Voronezh) to a recording of Marian Anderson, singing gospel music on Moscow Radio. Poets - in their visionary, enthusiastic, prophetic, charismatic, shamanic modes - have been associated with "raptures" from the beginning of time (isn't rhapsode a name for "poet" in Greek?). Plato memorably contrasted the "reasonable" discourse of the philosophers with the Muse-inspired, unpredictable flights of poets. The ancient kinship between poem & oracle was a cross-cultural given. What is involved here is the charisma of possession - of the in-coming of the God, the Divine, the Spirit : of a somatic/intellectual experience which transports the poet into a "harmonic" state, resulting in song : the expression, the narration of the holistic, visionary experience itself : Mandelstam's "rapture of the universe." We are reminded here of the apostle Paul's account of his sudden transport to "the third heaven" (ie. above the clouds, and also beyond the stars), where he saw things he could not put into words; and of Dante's journey to Paradise with Beatrice (which explicitly adumbrates Paul's confession). These are what you might call canonical examples in the history of "rapture." They are akin as well to the Gospel episode, when the disciples witness Jesus' Transfiguration - standing on the hill with Elijah and Moses - from earthly man into heavenly being.

Many people - maybe everyone, really - have experienced, at one time or another, brushes with the inexplicable : the uncanny, the marvelous, the serendipitous, the wonderful, the mysterious... the spiritual, the numinous, the holy. Encounters or events which one cannot (or will not) reduce to some rational explanation or verbal equivalent. For the rare saints & holy people among us, ordinary life, whatever it brings, is perhaps transformed into the "bread & wine" of spiritual understanding : for the rest of us, most of the time, we're O.K. if we can just stave off trouble & get through another day....

But I've had my share of such rare & extraordinary experiences. Some of them have profoundly shaped the direction my life has taken. As I've written about before - when I was about 20 yrs old (in 1972-3) I underwent a series of seismic psychological events - uncanny, charismatic experiences - which seemed to mingle faith, vision & poetry. As a result I was shaken out of my practical life and rational pursuits : I dropped out of college for three years; I hitchhiked around the country (& England) in a kind of cloud of pondering & meditation on the mystery of things. & in a sense I have never stopped seeking that understanding : in 1973 I was brought up short by a kind of rational enigma, which spurred my curiosity about metaphysical, spiritual things. But I misrepresent what I went through, if I narrate this as merely some sort of gnostic search for occult knowledge. It was really an experience of being moved & changed in the heart of my personality : morally & emotionally as well as intellectually. My life was changed.

One of the consequences of this - & because what I went through was all tangled up in my mind with my sense of myself as a poet, with a literary vocation - was that I was unable to return to academics & the pursuit of a career in a "normal" way. I felt I had been through something which no teacher or classroom could explain to me; moreover, I felt motivated to find a way to express what I was "seeing" & learning directly in poetry. Poetry, vision & experience seemed irreducibly entwined. And I think at least one part of the reason I've worked at a kind of low-level job in a library for 25 years, is that I needed that independence from any kind of "worldly" demands on my ability to express things in poetry. I couldn't teach writing, I couldn't study or pursue an academic degree in a "sensible" way, because the intellectual & vocational responsibilities involved would be more than I could bear. (I realize there might be other, less charitable ways of evaluating such diffidence on my part. I'm sure there are many sides to it - "character issues"... I'm explaining just one of them.)

But setting aside the autobiographical vein : what I mean to suggest is that these extraordinary events - these strange spiritual promptings (nudgings?) - have provided me food for thought now for a long time : a food which has never run out. & over the past few weeks & months I've sensed a sort of integration in my mind, of longstanding notions & new researches - connected with the long poem I've been struggling with (Lanthanum). Integration, synthesis... it's a sense of certain ideas becoming substantial, & harmonized with each other, so that they provide a sort of confirmation, a weight or substance, which I can carry around with me... in a state of mild rapture & joy!

This is really not easy to explain without degrading it in the process. I've been searching for images & rational analogues of something at the root of the poem (Lanthanum), which was an unusual dream I had a few years ago about the Gateway Arch monument, in St. Louis. I've been reading about architecture (Padovan, Proportion; Van der Laan; Smith, The Dome). I've been reading various things on the literature of the Holy Grail (Gemstone of Paradise by Murphy was especially interesting, as was an old book by Helen Adolf, Visio Pacis). I've been reading some theology, especially the Byzantine church father, Maximus the Confessor. I've been reading some physics & cosmology. From these & many other books I've been drawing nourishment, I think, for a sort of productive way of seeing, or way of understanding things in general. & out of all this there was not a single "Eureka!" moment - but a kind of drawn-out, successive, gradual, gradually-expanding & growing & strengrthening E-U-R-E-K-A !-sense... a real "rapture of the universe", as Mandelstam put it.

How can I say it? I can't. I've been trying to say it & express it & sketch it out in the Lanthanum sequence & other poems. But since tomorrow's supposed to be "The Rapture," let me on this special occasion try to articulate my own intellectual joy-glee-rapture as I seem to feel it & see it.

Murphy, in his book on the grail, sets himself the task of explaining why the poet Wolfram von Eschenbach (in Parzival) describes the grail as a "stone." He explains how the tomb of Christ was considered to be carved out of stone - to be a rock tomb. He explains that the Church began sanctifying portable eucharistic tables, so that pilgrims & soldiers could receive Communion even away from churches proper. These tables were little boxes or stands, made out of stone & gems, beautifully designed, with small hollow sections - miniature replicas of the Holy Sepulchre - which held the sanctified eucharistic bread (Christ's body). He shows how Wolfram's descriptions of the grail seemed based on such portable eucharistic containers - Murphy even discovers a specific box (in a museum in Bamberg, Germany) which he believes may have served as Wolfram's model.

The implication of these affinities is that the grail is equated with Christ's eucharistic Body : which itself (the eucharist) stems from, is part of, the body of Christ himself (in the Sepulchre, and resurrected on Easter). The Sepulchre today rests under a domed building in Jerusalem. Domical structures (as Smith relates) are a very basic & global figure for the human "home" (being a microcosmic representation - from nomadic tent structures to Hagia Sophia - of the "dome of heaven" arching over the earth). Thus we have the image of the mortal/risen Man/God - Jesus - located in the symbolic "center of the earth" (Jerusalem) - beneath the microcosmic dome-home - & replicated in a portable eucharistic "grail", available to anyone who seeks it.

Thus far we are discoursing on symbolic-religious symbols (which, taken by itself, could be criticized, I suppose, as a species of mystico-antiquarianism). So let me try to explain how I understand a sort of philosophical analogue or parallel to these symbols. And I want also to try to relate all this to poetry.

I think the human mind & imagination have an inborn orientation toward understanding. The discipline of science subjects this drive, this orientation, to the demands of analysis, experiment & proof : but the drive itself - to understand - came first. The mind - the imagination - is synthetic : aiming for wholes, for completeness, for the integration of disparate facts & experiences. The urge to wonder seems primordial to me : and what it answers, what it responds to, is an awareness of the basic difference between nothing and something. The vast universe - something - stands against nothingness, non-existence. I remember pondering these things in adolescence - but it probably starts in childhood : wondering, questioning the origin of life, of the universe.

Further, I think there is a basic consequence of this original human wondering, which is a state of what used to be called "natural piety". It is a deep and mostly-unconscious gratitude for being : an attitude of thanksgiving for the joy of mere existence, of being-alive. Of course, many things (we all know them) work to crumble & debilitate this attitude of gratitude : but this doesn't mean it's not still lurking there, beneath all our fears & disappointments. It is too basic, too primordial, to be destroyed.

Now let me try to pull some of these threads together toward some sort of conclusion. Here's what I say : the true "holy grail" is a kind of portable state of awareness. An awareness of what? A sense of an underlying harmony. What is this harmony? It is a harmony of proportion : a proportion (ratio, logos) between the human & the divine, between humanity & God. In a stance of gratitude. Gratitude stemming from an awareness of the "createdness" of the visible universe : of something born out of nothing. And not only that : but also gratitude stemming from an awareness of this central proportion itself : that human persons - in the "architecture" or "ecology" (the dome) of their lived lives on earth - represent visible images of divine Personhood. The earth, as Mandelstam, put it, is a "mansion" - & we are "God's grateful guests". This is a very basic (& fairly traditional) insight - shared by another Petersburg poet, Gumilev, & by Anna Akhmatova : it was part of the "chaste vision" of the Acmeist poetic project of the early 20th century. On this most simple foundation of gratitude or thanksgiving, the whole normative structure of civilization is seen to be constructed. It is stated most clearly in the Gospels, when Jesus explains that all the law & commandments hang on two basic commands : "To love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind & strength, and what is like unto it, to love your neighbor as yourself." This is the core activation of the most basic sense of faith in a divine or metaphysical or dream or dramatic order of cosmic reality : this is the "bread & wine" of the poetic vision of the universe - its "rapture." Under the estrangement of time, and change & mortality, this is the promise of a kind of Easter metamorphosis : a resurrection of the mind & spirit through a mysterious Approach of living Consciousness - the dramatic victory of "sacred history" - its epic plot, you might say - its "divine comedy" : the victory of spirit over matter, of immortality over death. This, you could say, is what Mary Magdalen "saw" when she found Jesus - "the gardener" - near the empty tomb. In another late poem, Mandelstam put this kind of deep rapture into words again, a poem which is one of my all-time favorites (translated here by Richard & Elizabeth McKane). The "clarity of a concept" - this is it.

To Natasha Shtempel

1.

Limping against her will over the deserted earth,
with uneven, sweet steps,
she walks just ahead
of her swift friend and her fiance.
The restraining freedom
of her inspiring disability pulls her along,
but it seems that her walking is held back
by the clarity of a concept :
that this spring weather
is the ancestral mother of the grave's vault,
and that this is an eternal beginning.

2.

There are women, who are so close to the moist earth,
their every step is a loud mourning,
their calling is to accompany the resurrected,
and be first to greet the dead.
It is a crime to demand kisses from them,
and it is impossible to part from them.
Today angels, tomorrow worms in the graveyard,
and the day after, just an outline.
The steps you once took, you won't be able to take.
Flowers are immortal. Heaven is integral.
What will be is only a promise.

3 comments:

Michael Schiavo said...

I really think you'll like Emerson when you start to read his Essays -- tho start with "Nature," "The American Scholar," and the "Divinity School Address."

Michael Schiavo said...

One mode of the divine teaching is the incarnation of the spirit in a form, — in forms, like my own. I live in society; with persons who answer to thoughts in my own mind, or express a certain obedience to the great instincts to which I live. I see its presence to them. I am certified of a common nature; and these other souls, these separated selves, draw me as nothing else can. They stir in me the new emotions we call passion; of love, hatred, fear, admiration, pity; thence comes conversation, competition, persuasion, cities, and war. Persons are supplementary to the primary teaching of the soul. In youth we are mad for persons. Childhood and youth see all the world in them. But the larger experience of man discovers the identical nature appearing through them all. Persons themselves acquaint us with the impersonal. In all conversation between two persons, tacit reference is made, as to a third party, to a common nature. That third party or common nature is not social; it is impersonal; is God. And so in groups where debate is earnest, and especially on high questions, the company become aware that the thought rises to an equal level in all bosoms, that all have a spiritual property in what was said, as well as the sayer. They all become wiser than they were. It arches over them like a temple, this unity of thought, in which every heart beats with nobler sense of power and duty, and thinks and acts with unusual solemnity. All are conscious of attaining to a higher self-possession. It shines for all. There is a certain wisdom of humanity which is common to the greatest men with the lowest, and which our ordinary education often labors to silence and obstruct. The mind is one, and the best minds, who love truth for its own sake, think much less of property in truth. They accept it thankfully everywhere, and do not label or stamp it with any man's name, for it is theirs long beforehand, and from eternity. The learned and the studious of thought have no monopoly of wisdom. Their violence of direction in some degree disqualifies them to think truly. We owe many valuable observations to people who are not very acute or profound, and who say the thing without effort, which we want and have long been hunting in vain. The action of the soul is oftener in that which is felt and left unsaid, than in that which is said in any conversation. It broods over every society, and they unconsciously seek for it in each other. We know better than we do. We do not yet possess ourselves, and we know at the same time that we are much more. I feel the same truth how often in my trivial conversation with my neighbours, that somewhat higher in each of us overlooks this by-play, and Jove nods to Jove from behind each of us."

Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The Over-Soul"

Henry Gould said...

Thanks for sending this, Michael. I find myself disagreeing with some of it... but happy to read a little Emerson...