Sunday, September 27, 2009

Eleven Good Reads: J.S. Porter's Spirit Book Word

The onslaught of digital culture has led many to fear both the end of book culture and the end of literacy as we know it. In the recent couple decades writers great and small have penned homages to the experience of reading, to the tactility and presence of the book in the reader's hands, and many of these homages have more than a little of the swan song about them. The tone of farewell is perhaps not unreasonable given the new technologies and the shoddy standard of literacy that prevails among millions now graduating from North American universities. But how impress upon those who live by "tweets" and YouTube just what is being lost?

J.S. Porter's small volume Spirit Book Word is just the kind of slap awake that's needed. Better than anyone I know of, Porter gets you inside the rollercoaster ride of danger and elation that is the essence of serious reading. If indeed books can change both individual lives and the very shape of the world--and who, looking at examples as diverse as the Koran, the Gospels, or the works of Karl Marx, would deny it?--Porter evokes the experience of being shaken in the first-person. What does it mean to take up a great work and be temporarily, or perhaps permanently, remade by the vision the writer offers within?

Spirit Book World is arranged as ten meditations on ten writers that have meant the world to Porter. Each meditation is an attempt to explain the import of a single word in the given writer's work and vision. And so, writing on D.H. Lawrence, Porter elucidates the word quick in Lawrence's work; writing on Clarice Lispector, he uses the word strange as a bridge across which one may approach Lispector's dangerously decentering narratives; with Raymond Carver, the word is love. Such a critical method may sound facile, and could easily be so with a less gifted reader, but Porter writes like a man in a terrible hurry--hurried by the need to make you experience what he has in his ten love affairs with his ten chosen writers.

"A man in a terrible hurry"--this doesn't sound quite right, since, as we know, those in a terrible hurry make a mess of things. But reading Porter at one point, in his opening chapter, made me think of the proverb Still waters run deep, and how, indeed, the proverb is usually true. Usually true. We know that still waters run deep, and that those who are staccato or loquacious--in other words fast--run shallow, are shallow. Porter's style is eccentric in this regard: it is both deep and fast, something that, at least as regards water, one doesn't encounter in nature. His sentences tend to be short, pugilistic even, but there is a concrete depth of reference, at times a great lyricism, at others pathos, at others a learned shorthand. Spirit Book Word reads quickly, in a conversational manner, and yet it reaches great depths.

One may put my statement to the test by looking at his chapter on Heidegger. The ten writers Porter takes up in order are Carver, Kristjana Gunnars, Flannery O'Connor, Lawrence, Emily Dickinson, Heidegger, Dennis Lee, George Grant, and Thomas Merton. The German philosopher stands out in this list: as I read through Porter's chapters in order, I could only keep wondering how his approach could possibly do justice. Not that Heidegger is somehow a greater figure than Carver or Dickinson, but there is such a breadth of background to Heidegger's work, the millennia-spanning web of Western metaphysics he struggled to think himself out of--how could Porter, with his conversational rhythm, hope to bring the reader near what Heidegger was up to? But he somehow manages to cut right to the chase: if fifteen pages is all you have to introduce Martin Heidegger, I challenge anyone to get at more of the gist in such a compelling way.

Porter tells of his own introduction to Heidegger's thought, in part through reading the philosopher, in part through George Steiner, in part through being attentive to language in Heidegger's careful way. Here are a few sentences by way of sample of Porter's hands-on approach:

Then, while at work on my poetic documentary of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, published in 1988 as The Thomas Merton Poems, I found myself lapsing into Heideggerian theory. Perhaps the best way to understand Heidegger was to do Heidegger, linguistically perform him and apply him to my own work.

In an unconscious echo of Heidegger and a poet he admired, Stefan George, I wrote, "There is no thing / without the entwining word . . . There is no returning / to the moment of / precopulation . . ." In defiance of current theories that to overcome human alienation one had to jettison language, I seemed intuitively to stand with Heidegger: that there is no Being in human form without language. While language, particularly when clad in calculative thought, can distance us from Being, language can also bring us closer, when poetically realized, to Being.

In Heidegger, language comes from poetry--in Emerson's phrase, language is "fossil poetry"--and thought comes out of language.
Porter is very serious about the books to which he would introduce us. He introduces us to them as he would introduce us to a good friend, somewhat reluctantly perhaps because he knows we may not like them. And besides, these particular friends are not to be messed around with:
I come to a book shyly, as I would to a temple. I open it as I would a snake-basket. I'm not sure of the exact nature of the reptile, but I know it might be dangerous, even lethal. I wait expectantly, patiently, for the bite. I pray that it may be life-altering.
How many people are there who can share in this approach to books?
It's hard to find someone to talk to. Hard and getting harder. Can I find a way of speaking to you that makes you care about [these writers]?
Porter ends with a chapter assessing how the growth of digital technologies may be destroying the experience he knows, may be alienating us from the Spirit he has sensed through literature encountered in the book. He is at times pessimistic, at others hopeful: "I go on then with the faith that the Spirit moves mysteriously; it can straddle a computer chip as it can ride a robin." Recognizing with George Grant that "the given overwhelms the made," that "we ourselves are more given than made," Porter wagers that no technology or particular regime will be able to completely erase our perception of this fact. Whether one agrees or not, we have here in any case one of the most crucially important questions.

Spirit Book Word will introduce most readers to at least a few writers new to them. Myself I think of people for whom to buy the book: friends who love reading, others who are perhaps on the way to loving reading. Porter has the odd persuasive power of a man speaking directly to you, willing to tell you straight out what matters most to him, in a sometimes strained and euphoric tone, at others more quiet and measured, but on most pages with the rare quality I tried to suggest above: both fast-moving and deep.

Get J.S. Porter's Spirit Book Word through Amazon.com

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Clay IV.20

The conundrum of language is that it has no history. There's nothing available in the way of a partially formed or half-formed language. We don't know how language arose, or if.

It is misleading to think that some time in the distant past we invented language. It's better to say that some time in the distant past language invented us, or rather started inventing us: clearly it isn't finished yet.

Clay IV.21

Disorder is reckoned to be the opposite of order. Evil is recognized as the opposite of good. But this is not to say that order is good and disorder evil. No, there is order that is evil, and disorder that is good. Good and evil are more nuanced, harder to pin down, than by the mere mark of order or disorder.

Stasis is not the epitome of good. The Kingdom of Heaven is certainly not an eternal stasis.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Clay IV.22

Dear Paul: Sorry to take so much time getting back to you. I was glad to hear you'd brought your work to the attention of others. Of those consulted I predict M------'s suggestions will be the most fruitful.

Why have I taken so long to reply? The difficulty is your question as to what Durationism is. I don't know how to answer without sending you the texts that might make it clearer, but, to tell the truth, I haven't finished writing these texts. It may be a while until I have.

Generally speaking, I'm a believer in the Christian message. Yet there are elements of orthodoxy that are unacceptable to me--theological positions I can't accept, positions that, formulated as they are, seem both complacent and insufficient to the problems. Likewise there are elements of Christian Gnosticism that are unacceptable to me. (The latter of course is a much less uniform tradition than Christian orthodoxy, but there's a tradition even so.)

I believe the Christian message remains latent. And I believe it can best be formulated between these two--between Gnosticism and the orthodoxy that forged itself partly in opposition to Gnosticism. The Duration is a term coined to indicate this work: the work of articulating a latent truth.

The Christian Duration, then, would be a heresy. Or it would be a heresy at least to the extent that it ever gathers enough force even to be dignified by that term.

What is a "heresy"? I'd insist that in relation to the truth that exists all our formulations are heresies, including, yes, the orthodox formulations. Because we can never articulate truth in a way commensurate with it--such articulations being always already duped by the snares of language. We are all, as the cliché has it, inmates in the prison-house of language.

Some of my initial formulations of what Duration theology asserts can be found in The Clay Testament, vol. IV. In the form of a collection of aphorisms or brief essays, vol. IV contains texts that led me to see the problems more clearly. I'm still working however. Best, Eric

Friday, September 18, 2009

Clay IV.23

The God of creation and the God of redemption are the same God. This God is neither omniscient nor omnipotent.

The Fall and the creation are the same moment. The Fall corresponds to the creation because the creation necessarily occurred in the space of the flaw.

Biblical depictions of God are mythological and legendary, particularly those of the Hebrew scriptures. This is not to say they are without truth, only that the kind of truth they offer is not a literal one.

Yahweh is a "false god" only to the extent that Yahweh is God seen through a glass darkly. The darkness of that glass is that of the flaw. We are also in the flaw.

Jesus Christ, the Messiah, offers us our clearest idea of God and his creation. The creation is on the way to redemption.

Because God is not omnipotent, however, such an outcome is not certain.

And Jesus' teaching, coming through the multiple glasses of the Gospels, must be interpreted. It must be interepreted, then lived. The Holy Spirit is sent to help us in this living, for we, as Paul has it, have died into Christ's death, and must live the work of redemption.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Clay IV.24

God did not create the universe ex nihilo. Rather the creation is a thing thrown here, thrown into a space Genesis refers to as "the deep," as tohu bohu. The creation is thrown here to do its shaping and unshaping.

What is it going to shape? What is it going to unshape?

The universe we know is a hybrid of God's word and the chaos into which the word is cast.

I say "the universe we know": we know it partially. Does God also know it partially? Does God know the flaw partially?

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Clay IV.25

Through our souls we are connected to each other and to God. Our souls are both here in the deep, cast here, and with God, simultaneously. We are in the flaw, yet part of us is outside the flaw, simultaneously.

Gnosis is the illumination of the ladder.

Chaos, the flaw, the deep, tohu bohu on the one side. God, the Word, our souls on the other. There is overlap between the two: the meaning of creation.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Clay IV.26

The tradition defines our three parts as body, soul, and spirit. These terms however are confusing to moderns, who normally use the term soul to refer to what the ancients called spirit.

I will thus name the three parts as follows: body, psyche, and soul (soul equaling spirit: pneuma).

The psyche is there between the body and soul, receiving its impressions from each depending on its powers of receptivity. The psyche receives its impressions from the body through the five senses and the network of nerves. It receives its impressions from the soul on the ladder of the imaginal.

What has been perceived by great prophets as the subtle body or astral body is nothing but a more complete recognition of the soul. The soul is seen as another, greater than oneself, which is also somehow the highest meaning of self.

To experience reunion with the astral body is to experience resurrection.

The soul is not entirely lodged in my body as a place: it is not contained therein. Though the body and psyche are indeed confined by location--they are only present where the person is present--the soul transcends location to the extent that it is present both here, as part of (the commonly recognized) me, and there, as part of the Pleroma. Through the presence of souls, then, part of the Pleroma occupies the flaw.

When the Gnostics refer to the sparks of the divine exiled here in the world, they are referring of course to the soul.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Clay IV.27

The material realm itself is our body.

When the tradition speaks of the resurrection of the body, it evidently means the material body. But our material bodies are part of the material realm and can have no sense outside the material realm. Resurrection must then ultimately refer to a resurrection of the context in which our material bodies exist: in other words, the material realm.

This means that the resurrection body is contiguous with a resurrected world, what the tradition calls the New Jerusalem. "Behold, I make all things new."

Paul insisted that the resurrection body was material but in a different way: whereas our normal bodies are animated by psyche and will die, the resurrection body, though material, is animated by spirit (pneuma). It is a transformation to a different kind of materiality.

And what does Jesus mean in Thomas: "but men do not see it"?