Personal Advent

Poets employ a type of fuzzy laser-light, reflecting & deflecting the living & dead poets who seem to be signaling them in turn.  Semaphore, smoke-signals.  I keep going back to the main poets who interest me, while also trying to spread out & venture into new regions.  I circle around Ezra Pound, for one.  There's a strange blinking mixed code emanating from him, so right & so wrong.

For some reason over the past year or so I've been delving a lot into anthropology & ancient belief systems & mythologies & prehistoric rites & the roots of human motivation... at least the theories about those roots...

I wrote an essay about the "New Gnostic" poets a while back (published online in the Coldfront zine).  Pound is important in that constellation of developments, along with Yeats.  Both of them deeply caught up in hermetic & occult philosophy.  Am now re-reading a good book on this topic, The Celestial Tradition : a study of Ezra Pound's The Cantos, by Demetres Tryphonopoulos.  The author explores what was called "the rising psychic tide" of all kinds of heterodox & occult beliefs & practices around 1880-1920, from the scholarly to the "thaumaturgic" & the fraudulent/comical hocus-pocus (see "Madame Sosostris" in Eliot's The Waste Land, for a sample).

Pound took no interest in Yeats' style of "practical" spiritualism (magic).  His was a more theoretical focus on the so-called ancient hermetic wisdom.  & his sifting of those traditions and values through the shaping of his poetry was very refined & remarkable, in some ways - and simultaneously extremely harmful & ugly.  His anti-semitism ran deep, his ideology always promoting the "pure, clean, luminous" mythology of the Greeks & the Romans, as opposed to the "dirty, evil" oppressions of the Judeo-Christian (Biblical) cultures.  He was fascinated by Catholicism - but as an expression of more ancient pagan "truths".

Just setting aside for a moment the hatefulness of Pound's anti-semitism - which parallels so closely the despicable Nazi ideology & program of degradation & de-humanization - I am struck by the irony of Pound's very serious, & sometimes beautiful, devotion to the spiritual heights of philosophical-poetic Wisdom.  As Tryphonopoulos so cogently explains, The Cantos are designed not as a narrative journey so much as a mystical initiation.  The process of reading The Cantos is meant to lead the seeker toward an inner spiritual enlightenment, joining the mind through poetry with the heights of wisdom represented by Confucius, the medieval saints & theologians, Ovid, Dante, etc. etc.  It's a very high-minded symposium of mystic illuminati, to which Pound is offering the reader an exalted poetic invitation.

What do I mean by "irony" in this case?  I'm thinking of the juxtaposition between Pound's fervent philosophical/mystical theme and his actual spiritual blindness.  There is the sense, reading his biographies, that perhaps, toward the end of his life, he himself had some awareness of this contrariety, this impasse.  Of course by calling his situation one of "spiritual blindness" I am expressing my own personal worldview...

The legacy of Biblical/Judaic/Christian spirituality includes, at its foundation, the sense that the Creator of the Universe (as we know it) is somehow "personal".   I see here a root contrast with Yeats, Pound, and the legacy of Neo-Platonism & hermetic gnosis.  In their case, spirituality and wisdom are a progress toward a kind of abstract higher wisdom itself.  The seeker is transfigured by spiritual knowledge into a kind of divine being.  Whereas, for Judaism & Christianity, spirituality is ultimately a relationship.  Though we cannot comprehend how the Origin of the Universe could possible be personal - except in some form of the person who reaches down into our own limited vision of the same - yet that is what we sense & believe the case to be.

This is underwritten (for Christianity) by the Trinitarian doctrine of "persons".   The philosophical synthesis (Greek-Judaic) achieved by such thinkers as the Byzantine monk Maximus the Confessor seems foundational - if not yet complete - in this regard.  (Not yet complete, in that while it represented a philosophical synthesis, it did not yet express a full reconciliation with Judaism : a task for the future.)  God is simultaneously present in the original Creator-Spirit, in his "Son-Servant" (Jesus), and in the "Holy Ghost" (present in the world, in infinite manifestations, now and everywhere).  In this way our notion of "person" is not abstracted into some merely transcendent sphere, but is fused with the personhood represented by a particular, historically-contingent, individual - which then serves as a kind of template for humankind in every other situation (rooted in loving relationship).  

For Pound, apparently, the essence of spirituality can be characterized as subjective experience.  For Judaism & Christianity, on the other hand, both the beginning and the end of spirituality rests in relationship.  This is not to say that Ezra Pound did not cherish his own dreams of utopia, human fellowship, and social justice.  But his basic orientation toward knowledge and wisdom - as a kind of abstract goal or measure, something to be achieved and learned - leaves aside any acknowledgement or  recognition of the prior (originating) presence of a sacred Personhood.  The fleeting appearances of Diana or Aphrodite as psychological experiences do not seem, in the end, to provide a firm ground for belief.  But he was searching.

I realize for some this is only another mode of mumbo-jumbo.  But I find reasonable support for this position in, among other places, the 20th-cent. philosophy of the scientist and polymath Michael Polanyi.  Polanyi's major work, Personal Knowledge, is a theory of epistemology.  What is knowledge, actually?  And how do we know anything?

For Polanyi, as his book title implies, all knowledge - including objective, scientific knowledge - is grounded and bounded by human subjectivity - by "personhood".  We don't develop "new knowledge" in the sciences, or any other field, without the mediation of human persons.  This sounds pretty obvious (in my sketchy summary) : but Polanyi draws out its consequences in quite profound ways.  He is able to bring the materialism and objectivity of 19th & 20th-cent. scientific positivism back into the moral/spiritual matrix of human persons : which was what Yeats & Pound themselves set out to do, a generation earlier.  With "faulty instruments" (cf. Eliot's Four Quartets).  The great ideological struggle of the "two cultures" (science and art, science & humanism, science & religion) finds a philosophical reconciliation in Polanyi's epistemology : one which Yeats & Pound so brilliantly sought, & so dramatically failed to find.

Michael Polanyi

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