Simone & Maximus & me

The French writer/philosopher/mystic Simone Weil appealed to me in the mid-1980s (still does).  Ascetic worker/dreamer; deep Biblical exegete.  I remember walking down to Seward's Folly bookshop, at the Fox Point end of Brook St., & asking Mr. Seward, the freewheeling eccentric bookseller & former Connecticut goat farmer, to look for a scarce book by her.  Seward threw up his hands.  "Simone Weil!  I adore that woman - but sometimes I want to grab her by the shoulders & give her a good shake!"

I can't remember much of what I read back then.  But I have a vague idea regarding some of her commentaries on the growth of the human soul.  How at a certain point the natural energies of the human person (like vegetation that runs out of water) wear themselves out; through mistakes & sufferings, the natural person reaches a psychic & physical limit.  Then only an infusion of supernatural grace can save the soul.

It meant something to me; I could identify with it.  I'd been there.

This is all by way of a lead-in to a second writer who (like Osip Mandelstam) has meant a lot to me, periodically, intermittently, over the years : the Byzantine theologian (& ordinary monk, & martyr) Maximus the Confessor.  I'm back again reading him, & about him (Microcosm & Mediator, by Lars Thunberg, is a magisterial study, a terrific book; Cosmic Liturgy, by Hans Urs von Balthasar, is another one).

My "professional" life in the vocation of poet has been a very strange & frustrating experience.  I think I speak for all poets when I say this (just kidding, sort of).  I'm absolutely sure that 99% of the mistakes along the way - moral, ethical, intellectual, aesthetic, etc. - have been my own.

But there is a kernel of strangeness in this overall experience - not so much strange, as uncanny - which I attribute to objective reality, rather than to my own quirks of psychology & moral turpitude.  This uncanny crux has something to do with Simone Weil's schema of the end of nature & the beginning of grace.

Maximus, I hazard to think, would trace Weil's divide back to the ur-distinction of his own theological vision : the difference between Creator and Creation.  What the worldview of brilliant Maximus does, however - with the suavity of Shakespeare & the incisiveness of Aristotle - is to reconcile this basic difference without blurring the distinction.  That is, he propounds a cosmic landscape, wherein the simple unknowable Oneness of the Creator is reconciled with the multitudinous Manyness of the Creation.  Incarnation is the name of that process by which the Many are harmonized with the One - by which all beings are united in creative Love, without losing their distinct identity & freedom as unique replicas of that original Creator.

I realize how hokey this sounds.  But it has a lot of resonance with the worldview of a poet who inherited - after many long centuries - the Orthodox legacy from Byzantium : Nikolai Gumilev, the founder of the Acmeist movement in Russian poetry, which Mandelstam & Akhmatova brought to full flower.  Gumilev adumbrated an underlying worldview for Acmeist poetics : he called it "chasteness".  It is something maybe akin to Walt Whitman's visionary sense of the "Union" of many equally beautiful things (small & great, humble & vast).  The idea is that poetry's moral purpose has to do with celebrating the "chasteness" - the inherent dignity - of all things on earth : because it (poetry) is a loving response - an echo - of the supernatural good will of their creative Origin.

This is a sort of mystical idea, I guess.  My own life as a poet is rooted, paradoxically, in a spiritual crisis & break from poetry.  I came to the end of my vegetable nature, so to speak (in Weil's sense), at the age of 19.  It was a common thing, & still is : a young person torn apart by the world's chaos, & by his or her own sense of betrayal (self-betrayal, betrayal of others).  The fanatic young enthusiasts of ISIS are not really that different.  They are Simone Weil's déracinés - the spiritually uprooted.  There but for the grace of God go I.

So I worked back slowly into poetry (thanks mostly to Stuart Blazer, John Tagliabue, Edwin Honig & Osip Mandelstam).  We are talking about things that happened 35 years ago, in the late 70s.  But these spiritual experiences marked me.  I have lived on the margins of "professional" poetry ever since.  There are many reasons for this, I admit, not all of them having to do with the present self-mythologizing.  But the central motive, the reason which keeps impelling me to write, is the theological one.  Once you have this salt of the realm of Jesus planted in you, it does not easily fade away.  It's a realm of supernatural joy : an infusion of saving grace : who would want to throw that away?

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