Princeton's Osip Mandelstam archive

Check this out.... amazing collection of digitized images of original manuscripts and papers of Osip Mandelshtam, with material also from Nadezhda Mandelstam & others.   Includes the "Voronezh Notebooks" ms....  Happy Thanksgiving!

Jesus thoughts

Today I give thanks that I'm not a prominent bishop or theologian, pressed to take "positions" and provide pastoral guidance on every moral issue of the day.  Some of the moral questions of the day seem truly murky to me - but that might just be me.  I'm just glad to be a lowly layperson poet & blogger; I don't have to engage - not "professionally", anyway - in the high profile debates among clergy & theologians & scholars.  I feel sort of the same way about not "teaching" poetry or poetry-writing.  It's a very honorable and important thing to do - to spread the knowledge and appreciation of good writing and literary history - but I'm glad I don't have to do it professionally.  It leaves me some freedom to write whatever I like, however I like - eccentric as it may be sometimes.

Writing this after post here yesterday in praise of a book I'm near finishing, by Anglican theologian N.T. Wright, called Surprised by Hope.  It's a summary (for a general audience) of his interpretation of the Christian doctrine of the Resurrection.  I'm finding it extremely cogent and fascinating, much in line with my own vague intuitions about these matters.  Wright argues - as I have too, in a way, here on HG Poetics - for the historical concreteness and actuality of the mysterious actions of Jesus, despite the fact that much of that actuality remains shrouded in inexplicable darkness.  He urges a shift away from what he calls a neo-Gnostic attitude (prevalent in some fundamentalist strains of American Protestantism, as well as in mainstream and Catholic medieval traditions) : an otherworldly division between spirit and flesh, between the destiny of "this fallen world" and an individual's eternal soul.  Wright brings back into force the Hebraic and Gospel understanding of the "kingdom of God" as a restitution of divine sovereignty in this world : a "setting right" of the whole cosmos, a true victory over death - starting with the "new creation" of Jesus' bodily return to life (in a new, & different, "spiritual" body - Paul's "glorified body").  This is what he means by theological Hope : that Christ's victory over the cross is meant to transform completely our sense of reality and human history.  By believing, we are not simply "saved" from this planet into some eternal soul realm : we are conjoined to save the whole planet - make the cosmos worthy again of its transcendent, creative origin.

I'm summarizing inadequately what seems to me a very acute and far-ranging presentation, with which I almost completely agree.  So I posted a brief comment about it here yesterday, including links to the book, and a link to Wright's Wikipedia biography.  This was before I actually read the Wikipedia entry.  There I learned that Wright has been described as an advocate of "Christian mortalism" - that is, a theology which dissents from a belief in a sort of "detachable" immortal soul.  Wright argues that a dependence on this kind of spirit-body split goes back, not to the Gospels, but to Plato and the Gnostics, and that this very ancient tendency has led to a sometimes complacent, otherworldly individualism, when it comes to grasping Christ's prophetic message and challenge.  As far as that goes, I think he's correct : but I would never be able to accept something termed "Christian mortalism".  This is throwing out the baby with the bathwater.  I think the power and freedom of the human soul depend to some extent on our sense of the soul's cosmic "sovereignty" over time and space. I'm reminded in this context of Vladimir Nabokov's playful parable, in his novel Bend Sinister, of the human soul's inherent dignity - when he has his main character, the old professor Adam Krug - who is embattled and persecuted by an Orwellian parody of a dictatorship - "rescued" from his torment and tormentors by the "transcendent" author of the novel himself.  I'm also reminded of this statement of Jesus, in one of the Gospels, which goes something like : "Fear not those who can harm the body, but not the soul : rather fear Him who can destroy both body and soul in hell!"  This seems to me like a pretty clear distinction between the two dimensions.

I do like and find fascinating Wright's notion that the "kingdom" of God" is not "up there" in the stars somewhere : but is a hidden dimension of our own earthly timespace, which occasionally makes its presence felt on earth (which we experience as divine grace, angelic intervention, miracle, & related phenomena). This is, obviously, very fertile ground for the literary imagination...

But I was also troubled to learn that Wright, as a prominent Anglican bishop (now retired), took part in the Lambeth convocation or conference of a few years back, and argued against the blessing of homosexual unions, and against the ordination of openly gay clergy.  This, to me, is one of those murky areas of social morality where judgement seems very difficult.

For me, being heterosexual, homosexuality has always been something of a puzzle, an "otherness".  What I do know is that all persons have instinctual sexual drives, and that sexuality is an inalienable dimension of our life in this body.  I also know that marriage, in its true sense, involves a vow of commitment and faithfulness which is made on behalf of the whole person, and the whole life of the persons who make such a vow.  If we believe that homosexuality is some kind of illness - some kind of physical or psychological diversion from the "normal" or "good" path of human sexuality - then I could understand the difficulty that religious authorities would have in consenting to bless or sanction the actions of those exhibiting such "symptoms".   On the other hand, if we consider homosexuality to be a phenomenon on a much wider scale of norms and normality - if we think of it as one among other forms of instinctual sexual drives - then it becomes harder to pass judgement on it as abnormal or morally wrong.  The Catholic Church and the Anglican communion, at present, are striving not to "pass judgement" on the instinctual drives themselves - but only on those who express such drives in action.  For many churches and denominations, sexual activity outside marriage is to be curbed, shunned, even condemned.  Thus, for them, it seems, homosexual activity would be on a par with adultery or pre-marital sex.

Obviously, the churches - despite maintaining a source of spiritual authority and moral exhortation, in the call to people to abjure all kinds of worldiness and idolatry (whether of riches or vanity or worldly honors or materialistic obsessions or sexual hedonism) for the sake of God's cosmic holiness, and one's own spiritual wholeness - the churches are always going to have a few problems imposing their moral strictures on the private lives of ordinary adult human beings.  If the Church is going to insist that those of homosexual inclination forsake all homosexual activity, then, to be fair, the Church is going to have to insist just as strongly on the ban on all sexual activity outside of marriage and procreation.  This is a worthy call to holiness, perhaps; but it will be hard to implement in practical terms.

As I say, these questions are not for me to resolve : I confess the strong sense of not having all the information necessary to make a moral judgement in this area.  But based on the limited sense of things I do have at this time, it seems to be most probable that homosexuality is not so much an illness as a part of a broader spectrum of human sexual orientation.  As such, and keeping in mind my previous description of marriage (as a vow of personal commitment in human wholeness), I have the feeling that the wisest and most charitable course would be to honor and bless those people who, of whatever harmless sexual orientation (& I underscore harmless), desire to make a personal life-commitment to another person whom they love.  This seems to be the dominant position of the American Episcopal church also - the church in which I was baptized and confirmed long ago.  I admit that in the long run I could be very wrong - morally mistaken - on this point; but that is my present belief on this subject - contra Bishop Wright, apparently.

*Late-night-thoughts (postscript) :

The original, apostolic Gospel, as I understand it - going back to John the Baptist - presents conversion as the watershed : to be reborn, to "die to the world, and to live in the Spirit with Christ".  It's a matter of complete moral re-orientation : away from selfish (temporal, earthbound) desire, and toward the realm of God's eternal dimension of love and grace.  Both John the Baptist and Paul the Apostle bore witness that, in this new life of the Spirit, our former worldly arrangements are completely abrogated, transformed; & that, in this situation, it's better simply to wait for the grace of God - to accept patiently (as infants in the new life) whatever present situation in which we find ourselves.  Yet, at the same time, to renounce all allegiance to our former unregenerate ways : to provide no allowance for the world, the flesh, the devil.  In this context - one of ascetic renunciation - the condemnation of homosexual activity is understandable.  Profane, "unnatural" behavior becomes the representative symbol (the scapegoat, in a sense) for all forms of hedonism and lust.  Thus to ask for sacramental sanction for homosexual unions, or to offer episcopal authority to "openly gay" clerics, appears to contradict or offend the foundational principles of the church.

This constellation of spiritual belief and principle seems, on superficial grounds, unanswerable : in such context, the notion of "gay marriage", for example, is already beyond the pale.  Yet there is an answer, a counter-argument.  If indeed there is a diversity of inborn sexual orientation, as an inherent fact of human nature - then Christian baptism, and the new life it represents, should be able to redeem the whole spectrum of biological drives.  In other words, one who is born with a homosexual orientation should be enabled (through the Redemption) to enter this new life, along with any other child of God.  The harmony of the individual conscience with God's will takes many forms, none of which we are authorized to judge (since such grace is ipso facto beyond judgement).  So, if people born homosexual hear the call of baptism and rebirth, and re-order themselves to the commitments of this new life, who are we to pass judgement?  If they choose to enter into a loving, spousal relationship in the light of God's grace, who are we to outlaw them?  If they are called to serve God in his church in a clerical vocation, who are we to deny?  If indeed there are distinct, innate human sexual orientations, which develop in various patterns, then God will certainly find a way to lead them all into the great communion - not separate from the rest, but subject to the same ascetic, spiritual rule and moral judgement as everyone else.

It all comes down to the question of nature.  If Dante is right, and homosexuality is contra naturam - a willful abrogation of God's natural law - then it deserves condemnation.  But, on the other hand, if homosexuality is one ordinary, innate dimension of nature, one variation of a norm (a norm of physical, "fleshly" desire, as opposed to spiritual law) - not a matter of rebellious, quasi-demonic human will - then it  will be transformed and redeemed along with the rest of human nature (the whole sum of human folly).  I don't know the answer to this question (of innate nature).  But this is how I would frame a preliminary (imperfect) response.


Logos in the River

I seem to have lost the habit of blog-rolling here.  Long intervals of silence (preserving thousands of digital trees, no doubt).  May be an opportunity to recollect, review some of those simple basic ideas or axioms which come to me when I try to think about poetry.

Poetry is an expression of harmony.

What is harmony?  Music offers the most obvious example : a concord of differing sounds, a combination of sometimes opposing elements in a new whole which is pleasing, beautiful.  But music is not the only manifestation of harmony.  In fact music, poetry and the other arts present different facets of some kind of deeper concord, inherent in reality.  In this respect I think of the mythical Apollo, the Greek god responsible for music, poetry and medicine.  I think of Osip Mandelstam's conviction that poetry is somehow connected with the healing arts.

The harmonics of poetry offer a sort of means of entry into the harmony of reality.  I think this is what Wallace Stevens was pondering when he wrote those gnomic sayings (the "Adagia") which counterpose poetry itself with the "poetry of life" or "the poetry of reality".

Poetry differs in kind from prose.

Such an assertion has led to all sorts of academic quibbles about the "prose virtues" of poetry, the "poetic qualities" of prose, the values of "prose poetry", etc.  Yet, in the end, poetry differs in kind from prose.  And what constitutes the difference is the presence of harmony.  The integral concord manifest in poetry is not present in prose.  Prose is transitive, in that its essential purpose is to "carry over" specific meaning(s) from writer to reader.  Poetry is intransitive, because, in the very process of its appearing, poetry "embodies" meaning under the aegis of harmony.

The contrast between prose and poetry is like the difference between a crowd of people congregated at a subway stop, deep in conversations with each other (or with their cell phones), and the person at the same subway stop who suddenly bursts into song.

Poetry is a powerful force.

The substance of poetry's power in human culture is also rooted in this dimension of harmony.  Its particular embodiment of the logos, or harmonious order of reality as a whole, shines out as a sort of epitome or quintessence or summation of the power of human language in general.  Such an "idealistic" principle has been criticized from various directions.  Aesthetic purists question the simple fusion of what is seen as a demonstration of supreme artistic autonomy and freedom, with any encroachment of a broader "reality principle" (despite the poetic guise such a principle takes on here).   Such a notion of poetry's potential power is also questioned by cultural traditionalists : the pitfalls of Romanticism, solipsism, antinomianism, or irrationality always shadow any personal expression of poetic "vision".  In response to this objection, a passage from Wallace Stevens comes to mind : "The whole race is a poet that writes down / The eccentric propositions of its fate."  In this regard, poetry simply distills and epitomizes the general poetic activity of the human mind.  "Mankind the Maker" lives by the conjectural utterances which give shape and meaning to experience.  Dante's "ben del intelletto" (the good of the intellect) is the summit of human understanding : and such understanding is shared by means of our verbal capability - by means of the Word.

Poetry is an end in itself.

If poetry is indeed a powerful cultural force, which can breathe with great impact across the times and spaces of human culture, how then could it also be an end in itself?   Again, we go back to this dimension of inherent harmony.  If the poem is not a pleasing whole, if it does not please and gratify its audience for its own sake, if it is not in some sense gratuitous, then it is not really poetry, but something else (prose, pose, propaganda...).  The radical aspect of this situation is that poetry's wholeness, its graceful self-sufficiency, is a reflection of its origin in the harmony of reality itself.  Thus every time we are gratified by the concordant beauty of a poem, we are reminded of the "sabbath" dimension of the entire cosmos : the mystery of its creative, gratuitous, playful, beautiful, ex nihilo Presence.

Poetry is personal.

We are veering toward some Coleridgean Romantic mystagoguery here... but I am going to proceed inexorably in that direction.  If we look back at modern and postmodern trends in poetry, we find periodic efforts to resist or contain the "personal" - mere self-expression.  Eliot with his "impersonality" and "objective correlative" and tradition; Pound with his precise, quasi-scientific Imagism; the New Critics with their ideal of aesthetic autotelism; the Language Poets with their theory-driven abolition of individual expression; the Flarfistes with their techno-travesty of same... all these efforts sought to limit the futility and powerlessness - the pathetic, abject character - of the "personal poem".  In the absence or decay of cohesive social bonds, their programmatic projects sought some kind of comparable socialization or group authorization, through the application of shared methods and communal styles.

But poetry is ultimately a union of opposites.  In the poem, the personal and individual comes into a harmonic concordance with the social, the communal, the traditional.  What was creative, inimitable and unique comes to be seen as iconic, necessary and shared.  What was an artifact becomes a quasi-natural object.  Shakespeare's "trademark" style, the thumbprint of his personal voice, comes to suffuse the works of his maturity - no matter how saturated they are, simultaneously, with generic models and communal design.

This concordance of the personal and the public also reveals, for me anyway, a theological subtext.  We come back to the notion of a cosmos which is manifest ex nihilo - a gratuitous, galactic wonder.  We return to the centrality of the personal : whether understood on the level of the individuality of each human person, or in the projected sense of a conjectural Person - a cosmic mind-matrix, an Ancient of Days - from Whom all our personal experience proceeds.  

Yet it does not follow from this that all poetry must be individualistic, "confessional".  In fact the incalculable fusion of personal and universal which radiates from the greatest poems is the outcome of some kind of laborious intellectual and moral wedding, welding : a chemical, alchemical bonding of poet and people, of poem and the age.  This is the high path tread by the great poets of all cultures.

Well, this probably doesn't cover all the simple axioms which I maintain... but enough for now, I guess.