Metaphysical Acmeism : Man's Place

This terse early poem by Mandelstam expresses a central insight of the Russian Acmeist worldview :

Let the names of imperial cities
caress the ears with brief meaning.
It's not Rome the city that lives on,
it's man's place in the universe.

Emperors try to rule that,
priests find excuses for wars,
but the day that place falls empty
houses and altars are trash.

"Man's place in the universe." In my stray thoughts I return to this concept again and again, as if it might conceal a sort of secret key of enlightenment. A touchstone. No, let me be more forthright : I think it does offer such a key. (Roger Williams, in the introduction to his pamphlet A Key into the Language of America, wrote : "A little key may open a box, where lies a bunch of keys...")

How to put this, so as not to spoil & ruin it with Henryesque banality...

I think in order to grasp what I'm trying to explain, one has to spin several conceptual frisbees simultaneously. The first is a notion about the nature of God. We have to accept, provisionally, the axiom that God, though certainly mysterious & unknowable & incomprehensible, must be understood, if understood at all, in terms of mind & consciousness & personhood. We cannot grasp, reasonably & common-sensically, how this can be so : but we must accept the idea that our only pathway to a provisionally-accurate notion of God, is by way of an extrapolation from what we do know about mind & intelligence. The door to understanding the divine goes through our sense of conscious personhood. A phrase from the Gospels comes to mind : Jesus says, "God is Spirit, & those who worship Him must worship him in spirit & truth."

The second notion or axiom which we must provisionally accept, is related to the first : that is, the idea that Man (humankind) is made "in God's image & likeness." If you (conceptually) overlay this second notion across the first, you might catch the image that comes to my mind : that we can glimpse God, the mysterious invisible Original One, the "Ancient of Days," through the human person as we see her (Blake's "human form Divine").

The third (& again, related) notion we have to entertain, provisionally, is sometimes extremely difficult to comprehend, much less accept. It is a specifically Christian notion : the idea of the incarnation of God in Man, in Jesus. What this says to me, among other things, if one can accept it, is that the universal God chooses to make himself a microcosm in the form of a human being, and in this way, join the divine with the human in a new synthesis. When in the Gospels Jesus insists that I am the Way; I and the Father are one; I am the Beginning and the End, etc., I find that one way to understand these claims is that by means of the Incarnation, God has not only created Man in the divine image, but God has in a sense set a permanent seal of absolute fulfillment on the whole order of nature & time & history : has shaped the entire scale of nature around this manifestation of the place of the unique human person within it. So we draw near to God, or God draws near to us, within the framework of the distinct person, the individual, the self... you & me. Through becoming this "microcosm", God has entered the inward marrow of each person, the inward subjective life of each individual self & soul. How? He has, ceremonially, sacrificially, & humbly-regally (as a kind of servant), joined us - become like us. (See Mandelstam's unfinished essay "Pushkin & Scriabin", for his thoughts on how this idea, the Christian notion of Redemption, provided the underlying sanction for the "joyful freedom" of Western art ; Man's playful game of "hide & seek with the Father.")

So keeping these three basic notions or axioms in mind, we go back to Mandelstam's verses :

It's not Rome the city that lives on,
it's man's place in the universe.

Now with this new background, the verses suggest a deeper substance. The dignity and stability of human culture, which Mandelstam & the other Acmeists affirmed, is grounded in something like this threefold background, where through the dignity of the human person shines, as if through a transparent screen, the majesty of the divine. That normative equilibrium which is the aim of civilization, that grounding of human history in hope & renewal, is underwritten by a metaphysical sense of a Providential order, a comprehensive global goal - in order to return to which, mankind must struggle, re-orient, & self-reform.

As I was walking to work this morning, I was pondering these things... some thoughts formulated... it occurred to me that it is a basic wonder & miracle, how out of stellar fire eventually came water, as if out of a cosmic Sahara emerged an oasis. And we humans dwell in the midst of this strange wonder. The Gospels tell of how John the Baptist baptized the people with water, for purification & repentance : an ancient symbol for such; through water of baptism people washed away their evil deeds in repentance & forgiveness, & entered upon a new life, a new relation with God & their fellows. But then, the Gospel say, Jesus came along, saying, "John baptized you with water; but the Son of Man comes baptizing with Spirit & fire." So what does this suggest to me, as I'm walking along to work? That the "fire" with which the Son of Man baptizes is that primal fire out of which the whole creation emerged, the stellar fire, the solar fire. In this case, the actual stellar fire is a kind of parabolic metaphor for the intellectual fire of the divine Word : a fire of light & enlightenment, which opens & burns the mind out of its habits, mythologies & preconceptions - back to the source, the origin of its being : the living intellectual force of a light which makes persons no longer "children of men", but "children of God." Like Jesus, the newly-baptized becomes a fiery microcosm, taking her place in the midst of a cosmos made for her.

This is a beginning, then - a beginning-anew of everything. Further, to be "baptized with Spirit" suggest to me that the one baptized by fire is thus fused & conjoined with everyone else so baptized, so as to share this dignity & enlightenment & freedom which belongs to all the "children of God" (as in the scene of Pentecost, when the Spirit descends on everyone in the room in the form of a flame over their heads, & immediately they understand each other's differing languages...).

I find this scenario, this way of seeing things, rather intellectually stimulating, to say the least. Theology or metaphysics can be exciting, thrilling - though you wouldn't know it from most modern & contemporary depictions of religion over the last 200 years or so. We are steeped in doubt & disillusionment... but not always in the poets. When you read Whitman or Blake or Hopkins or Dickinson or Gumilev or Mandelstam on these ranges of dream & speculation, you find a different tune.

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