Resurrection is linked to the redemption of the flaw, that space in which the first creation occurred. Christ died in order to conquer this realm even unto its furthest reaches--to consume death and the flaw. Christ died in order to begin to use up death through his power as Word. Not succumbing to the powers of this realm, squarely facing torture and death, the man Jesus, empowered by the Christ in him, was executed and then rose. Through Christ we help in conquering this realm: our redemption is part of redemption as such. Resurrection and redemption are not a matter of escaping or transcending, but of fulfilling the creation.
Saturday, August 29, 2009
Friday, August 28, 2009
I have long thought that the truth of Christianity remains somehow latent, as yet unarticulated, between orthodoxy and Gnosticism. If I have thought such, however, it is because of what I see as the approach to truth in 1) the Gnostic account of creation as an accident, and 2) the Gnostic recognition that, at our core, we hold an uncreated spark, that we are ourselves at some essential level already part of the divine. †
As for creation as an accident, I don't quite conceive of it as such. I conceive of it rather as deliberate--both the first creation and the second--but that the first creation was also the Fall. †
The crux: Was the first creation also the Fall because of the chaos met by the act of creation--i.e., is creation necessarily a matter of an indeterminate process? Or was the first creation the Fall because of God's willful withdrawal of his power, allowing his creatures to err--i.e., is creation somehow willfully a matter of an indeterminate process? †
I usually incline toward the former possibility.
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
I choose the term Duration to suggest several things. For one, it is meant to celebrate the Christianity that endures in me even though I do not believe certain doctrines of the Church. A particular teaching or dogma may not be part of my faith--nonetheless I am still a Christian. I am still a Christian because I believe the essential: Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ. †
For the Durationist, the term Christian is one that defines a certain belief about the man Jesus: namely that he was the Christ. For the Durationist, the only essential elements of Christianity are 1) a stress on the importance of the Messiah and 2) the identification of the Messiah with Jesus. The rest, including the understanding of God, the Trinity, the virgin birth, the resurrection--these things are not part of the essential definition of Christianity, but are only interpretations. †
My own belief has its particular stresses, its particular interpretations. I call myself a Durationist Christian.
Saturday, August 22, 2009
The Nicene Creed: a summation of the heresies finally accepted by the 4th century bishops. Which is not to show contempt for this great summing up in the history of Christian thought. But the doctrine of perpetual error applies.
Thursday, August 20, 2009
I have asked the questions and struggled with possible answers. If I have any wisdom in me, I will accept the outcomes of thought for what they are: outcomes of thought, a discursive struggle. †
In the most difficult matters--and that of God's omnipotence is the most difficult matter for me--one must know when to surrender the need to know. The struggle reaches an aporia. At best it is an aporia better articulated than at first. †
I can't know, and so surrender to the incompatibility of the tradition's assertions of God's omnipotence and omniscience, on the one hand, and my best thought responses, which amount to reasoned doubt and struggle, on the other. †
Of course faith in God and the gnosis of God does not necessarily mean being able to articulate the meaning of the creation. †
To assert that God is not omnipotent or omniscient is unjustifiable in the light of Matthew 10:29 or Jesus' words in Matthew 6. Of course we know that many of Jesus' words in the Gospels are are not authentic: nonetheless I know no good basis on which to reject these particular assertions. To the extent that he was speaking in the line of the prophets, in the line of Jewish tradiition, these words are not exceptionable. And so it is no small thing to assert: "These particular words--the Messiah probably didn't speak them." It is certainly very possible he did not, but one has no good historical reason to assert it. †
I suspect there is something askew in the traditional understanding, that the created world is not a constant and perfect expression of God's will. †
And so the struggle reaches an aporia for me, as it has often done for others. This particular suspicion and my faith have no trouble living together however. As I say above, one surrenders the need to know. †
One surrenders the need to know; one continues to pose the question.
Monday, August 17, 2009
New Testament scholar Marcus Borg is a religious thinker who thinks in stages. A period characterized by certain convictions finally proves inadequate to knowledge or experience and must give way to a new set of convictions. Unlike many modern scholars, however, Borg realizes that these new convictions need not be anti-religious. In an autobiographical essay, one reads of his personal religious development as a progress through stages: he presents the naïve belief of his youth, followed by a period of troubled atheism, developing in university into a quest to understand Jesus in relation to the political and social problems of his day. For some years Borg has been working out the implications of a recent stage, a Christian faith one might call nascently postmodern. Is the stage he is now pursuing prelude to a new, more spiritually attuned Christianity--as he and likeminded liberal Christians believe--or is it herald rather to the demise of Christianity? One may rightly ask this question.
My focus here will not so much be such general questions as the question of how Borg reads the Bible. I approach Borg's methods of biblical interpretation by considering his book Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, where he offers readings of important biblical texts, including Genesis, the prophets, Job and Ecclesiastes, the Gospels, Paul's letters and Revelation. For my concerns, the most interesting sections of the book come before the specific readings, so I will mainly take up his first chapters, in which he addresses the more general questions of biblical interpretation, i.e.: What kind of book is the Bible? How are we to interpret biblical texts?
One can't deny that Borg makes persuasive arguments against the fundamentalists, those who call themselves "Bible-believing" Christians and who define their belief via the insistence that everything narrated in the Bible is literally, factually, historically true. Fundamentalists believe their argument for the inerrancy of the Bible is in line with traditional Christianity. Borg demonstrates that it is not:
They typically see themselves as affirming "the old-time religion"--that is, Christianity as it was before the modern period. In fact, however, as we shall see, their approach itself is modern, largely the product of a particular form of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Protestant theology. (5)As Borg explains it, Bible literalists, unbeknownst to themselves, have been made pawns of the very Enlightenment culture they struggle against. How could this be? It is a result of the pervasiveness of Enlightenment views of reality and how we ground our knowledge of reality.
All of us raised and educated in modern Western societies have, whether we like it or not, been indoctrinated with generally Enlightenment views. As Borg likes to put it, we are "fact fundamentalists." We learn early on that statements of truth must be factually verifiable: any statement that doesn't correspond to "the facts" cannot be true. Not factually true, it is false, or, worse, simply nonsense. Our culture's deeply ingrained respect for facts is a result of the success of Enlightenment science, which we credit with all the technological breakthroughs of the modern world. As Borg would point out, however, the pervasiveness of science in our world has made us deaf to other sorts of truth than the merely factual or material. Specifically, we've lost the ability to understand broadly metaphorical truths. As "fact fundamentalists," we assume that anyone intending to say something important will use a fact-based manner of presentation. This, after all, is how scientists and researchers state the truth, so it must be the way to state the truth.
According to Borg, religious fundamentalists, who also live in the modern world, have anachronistically imposed this modern perspective on the Bible. They mistakenly assume the writers of biblical times shared our fact-based understanding of how to communicate truth. Fundamentalists are thus led to insist on the factual "inerrancy" of the Bible because, as moderns, they tacitly believe anything not grounded in historical fact will lose its authority. Indeed, given their narrowly modern perspective, they assume it could never have had any authority to begin with. In this way Borg shows that fundamentalists are duped by the very modernity they struggle against: insisting on the "literal truth" of the Bible, they risk shrinking the Bible down to the size of a high school science textbook. The problem is very clear: the Bible's manner of conveying truth is not and never was that of a textbook. The biblical writers did not share our obsession with fact-based presentation: their palette was more varied, and their works wove history and metaphor with a boldness we no longer appreciate.
Though Borg doubtless somewhat overstates his case, he is here generally persuasive. He shows throughout how biblical texts often contain internal cues as to their metaphorical intent. And he stresses that a literal reading was not necessarily the "normal" way of approaching the Bible even in the early centuries of Church history. Consider the following quote on the Genesis narratives:
What intelligent person can imagine that there was a first day, then a second and third day, evening and morning, without the sun, the moon, and the stars? [Sun, moon, and stars are created on the fourth day.] And that the first day--if it makes sense to call it such--existed even without a sky? [The sky is created on the second day.] Who is foolish enough to believe that, like a human gardener, God planted a garden in Eden in the East and placed in it a tree of life, visible and physical, so that by biting into its fruit one would obtain life? And that by eating from another tree, one would come to know good and evil? And when it is said that God walked in the garden in the evening and that Adam hid himself behind a tree, I cannot imagine that anyone will doubt that these details point symbolically to spiritual meanings by using a historical narrative which did not literally happen. (70-1)These words do not come from a modern liberal Christian seeking to water down the Bible's authority, but from the distinguished 3rd century Church father Origen. To men and women who lived before modernity, a story didn't necessarily have to be factual to merit reverence. They recognized other modes of truth. Though Origen affirmed that he saw much of the Bible as historical, he also insisted many things "were recorded as having occurred, but which did not literally take place," and that even "the gospels themselves are filled with the same kind of narratives."
Such statements may seem odd coming from one of the greatest of ancient Christian writers. But, according to Borg, it is we moderns who have become odd. He writes:
The modern preoccupation with factuality has had a pervasive and distorting effect on how we see the Bible and Christianity. . . . Christianity in the modern period became preoccupied with the dynamic of believing or not believing. For many people, believing "iffy" claims to be true became the central meaning of Christian faith. It is an odd notion--as if what God most wants from us is believing highly problematic statements to be factually true. And if one can't believe them, then one doesn't have faith and isn't a Christian. (16)For Borg the Bible is neither infallible nor somehow a transcription, written down by dictation, of the words of God. Rather it records the experiences of God of the ancient Israelites and the early Christian movement. The Bible is thus a record made by human beings, a "human product," but one that nevertheless communicates "a reality." According to Borg, God is not a fiction or a lie but a real presence known in human experience:
To see the Bible as a human product does not in any way deny the reality of God. Indeed, one of the central premises of this book is that God is real and can be experienced. I have put that as simply as I know how. At the risk of repetition, I mean that God (or "the sacred" or "Spirit," terms that I use synonymously) is a reality known in human experience, and not simply a human creation or projection.That "God is real," however, does not mean that there can be any perfect human explanation of God or God's will. And this includes the Bible.
Of course, whatever we say about the sacred is a human creation. We cannot talk about God (or anything else) except with the words, symbols, stories, concepts, and categories known to us, for they are the only language we have. Nevertheless, we also have experiences of "the holy," "the numinous," "the sacred." These experiences go beyond language, shatter it, relativize it. (22)For Borg, the sacred is mainly to be found in these experiences of God. If any scripture results from such experiences, that is necessarily a secondary phenomenon. If the Bible is sacred, then, it not because it is "the Word of God" in the sense of a Word that came directly from God, but rather because it is recognized as sacred by the community of Christian believers. The sacred character of the Bible is grounded in its status as record of the ancient experiences of God most valued by the Christian community. The Christian community, in turn, is constituted by the Bible through constant dialogue with its texts, which dialogue Borg understands as one of the central sacraments of Christian faith. To put all this another way, one might say that the Bible is not sacred in origin (it is not a direct product of divine composition) but only in status (it is a crucial ground of Christian experience of the sacred). Borg writes:
The older, conventional way of seeing the Bible grounded scripture's authority in its origin: the Bible was sacred because it came from God. The result was a monarchical model of biblical authority. Like an ancient monarch, the Bible stands over us, telling us what to believe and do. But seeing the Bible as sacred in its status leads to a different model of biblical authority. . . .Borg elaborates on what such living entails in his discussion of the Bible as a sacrament: "a vehicle by which God becomes present, a means through which the Spirit is experienced." (30-1)
The result: the monarchical model of biblical authority is replaced by a dialogical model of biblical authority. In other words, the biblical canon names the primary collection of ancient documents with which Christians are to be in continuing dialogue. This continuing conversation is definitive and constitutive of Christian identity. . . .
Yet because the Bible is a human product as well as sacred scripture, the continuing dialogue needs to be a critical conversation. There are parts of the Bible that we will decide need not or should not be honored, either because we discern that they were relevant to ancient times but not to our own, or because we discern that they were never the will of God.
. . . .
To be Christian means to live within the world created by the Bible.
Borg's arguments are powerful and well thought out, particularly as regards the blindess induced in modern Christians by our "fact-obsessed" modernity. Though there are directions in which I wouldn't follow Borg, I agree with him on much. Still, I believe in this work he has not adequately addressed the issue of language and the divine. For Borg--it is a point to which he returns repeatedly--the language of the Bible is human: both its glories and limitations come from its being a human product. As educated Christians, we admire the brilliance of biblical writers even as we recognize their (sometimes obsolete) culturally determined prejudices. According to Borg, humanity most quintessentially encounters the divine in "experiences of God," which are understood to be somehow separate from the language in which they are (later?) recorded. Thus the biblical writers' strictly human language is placed on one side as an instrument used to record what is seen, on the other, as the more essential experience.
There are various problems raised by this model. One is that it simplifies how biblical texts came to be written. For instance, we cannot really say that the writer of the Gospel of John "experienced" the content of his Gospel one day and then wrote it down the next, as if taking belated notes on a meeting he'd had earlier. I would argue instead that the interplay between experience and language is much more complex--even that language itself is in many cases a bridge to experience. Borg's model underestimates both the power and centrality of language: he puts language too exclusively on the human side of a divide between God and humanity. I myself believe (and of course I know it is not a widely shared belief) that our linguistic faculty is itself already partly divine. Through language, and particularly at certain privileged moments, the divine speaks in us. This is how the biblical prophets experienced language, and it explains, in my own understanding, a crucial part of the meaning of Christ as "the Word made Flesh." The Bible is not entirely a human product; to some degree, the language of the Bible came about across a bridge between God and ourselves.
Though sharing much with other species, we human beings are endowed, very mysteriously, with the power of language. Neither does any other species have anything approaching the complexity and power of human language, nor does any human community have a language that is less than fully developed: i.e., there is no such thing as a human group with a simple or "primitive language." Language, in all its complexity, is part of the human makeup. And with the power of language come other characteristics unique to our species, such as self-consciousness, reasoning ability, and religious sense. But where did our linguistic faculty itself come from, or, in evolutionary terms, how did it develop? Linguists, anthropologists, geneticists and brain scientists have struggled to answer this question, but a satisfying answer remains elusive. I would insist that this extraordinary faculty is the sign of some fundamental difference between us and other species, and that it is in this faculty, more than in our apelike shape, that we should see the meaning of the line in Genesis: "So God created man in his image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them." (Gen. 1:27) For me, to be created in the image of God is to be created as linguistic, thinking beings. (NB: Although I use the language of creation here, I do not reject the theory of evolution. On the contrary, evolution is the most compelling explanation of the physical origin of species, including our own. But evolution is not necessarily the most compelling explanation of everything that concerns the universe and life. Creation in my thinking was an oblique event: we are the species evolved to a point at which the linguistic and spiritual bridge to God opens. That this opening may be in part the result of a multitude of chance mutations does not mean there is no God or no creation; it only means that the material universe was set to throwing the dice until such an opening should be made. After which. . . .)
Our religious tradition, its understanding of God, forefronts language like no other. According to the first chapters of Genesis, creation itself was effected through language: "And God said, Let there be light: and there was light." (Gen. 1:3) The God who created through language is subsequently shown ordering the human world through it. The first human beings were expelled from the Garden of Eden because they ignored God's express verbal command (and it was the verbal wiles of the serpent that undid them); the Tower of Babel story shows human pride defeated through a newly instituted multiplicity of languages; the patriarch Abraham is not given a kingdom or some special power but is rather made party to a covenant (a verbal agreement); both Mosaic law and the prophets are a matter of getting the correct verbal expressions of God's will for humanity. In the New Testament, Jesus comes teaching like the prophets, and is called "the Word made Flesh." His common refrain is: "He who has ears to hear, let him hear."
At one point in his presentation, Borg argues against seeing the Bible as a part-human, part-divine product:
[A]ffirming that the Bible is both divine and human leads to the attempt to separate the divine parts from the human parts--as if some of it comes from God and some is a human product. The parts that come from God are then given authority, and the others are not. But the parts that we think come from God are normally the parts we see as important, and thus we simply confer divine authority on what matters to us, whether we be conservatives or liberals. (27)I agree that this will happen. Nonetheless the Bible is certainly such a divine/human product: the text is both shot through with divine formulations--expressions the Spirit forged in the crucible of the human mind--and inflected throughout by the dross of human mania and error. There is doubtless no single section of the Bible that is not in this way an admixture of the divine and human. Yet though we recognize the Bible is such a work, we will still be forever unable to separate out what comes from God and what is merely our own prejudice about God. This, however, is an attendant part of the human condition: we see "though a glass darkly."
The closest Borg comes to my own view of biblical language is in a discussion of the Bible as "the World of God," where he writes:
"Word" is being used in a metaphorical and nonliteral sense. As with metaphors generally, this one resonates with more than one nuance of meaning. A word is a means of communication, involving both speaking and hearing. A word is a means of disclosure; we disclose or reveal ourselves through words. Words bridge the distance between ourselves and others: we commune and become intimate through words.By evoking speaking, hearing and a distance to be bridged, Borg is getting close to contradicting himself. According to his repeatedly stated principle, it is not God we hear in the Bible, but men speaking of God. How then is the Bible a means of "divine self-disclosure"?
. . . . The Bible is a means of divine self-disclosure. (33-4)
Though I find Borg's solution to the problem of the origin of the Bible to be unsatisfactory, his chapter on basic reading approaches, in which he explains the "historical-metaphorical" method, is excellent. Many of his points here have long been understood by readers, going back even to ancient times, but in our world of atheist materialists on the one hand and biblical literalists on the other, such ideas need the kind of clear presentation Borg gives. He concludes the chapter by presenting three stages Bible readers may go through: precritical naivete; critical thinking; postcritical naivete. I believe his stages are roughly right for many modern Christians, but think he'd be better served calling the third stage postcritical belief. Perhaps he doesn't because of his stress on the experiential and sacramental over the, for him, more fraught term belief. In any case, for me a postcritical belief would imply a belief in the sacred character and central importance of the Bible, not a belief that all its narratives were factually true. As Borg points out, many pre-Englightenment cultures accepted that factually untrue stories could nonetheless be profoundly true:
Postcritical naivete is the ability to hear the biblical stories once again as true stories, even as one knows that they may not be factually true and that their truth does not depend upon their factuality.There are many aspects of Borg's book I haven't addressed. Most obviously, I haven't referred to any of his readings of biblical texts. As stated above, the bulk of Reading the Bible Again for the First Time is given to explicating important biblical books in terms of his historical-metaphorical method. Much of it is well worth reading, especially the chapters on the Pentateuch, the Gospels, and his well-balanced poetic defense of Revelation.
This way of hearing sacred stories is widespread in premodern cultures. In Arabia, traditional storytellers begin their stories with "This was, and this was not." . . . A favorite of mine is the way a Native American storyteller begins telling his tribe's story of creation: "Now I don't know if it happened this way or not, but I know this story is true." If you can get your mind around that statement, then you know what postcritical naivete is. (50)
In an epilogue, Borg writes:
[This] book reflects my personal perceptions. I do not have an objective vantage point outside of my own history. . . . For me, this book comes down to what I have been able to see thus far about how to read the Bible. (297)Such disarming statements are ultimately true, of course, but they are also somewhat belied by the amount of scholarship behind Borg's readings. After all, he has decades of study shaping his perceptions of the Bible; his "personal" interpretations are, to no small degree, a matter of what modern scholarship has allowed him to see. Borg struggles to be responsible both to his Christian faith and to what modernity has revealed to him. Whether he has been successful in this double allegiance is up to the reader to decide. Borg himself might argue, of course, that it is not a double allegiance and that it is not up to the reader to decide in any case. He might insist that success or failure here is a matter to be worked out in his personal relationship with God, in his own experience of the Christian tradition as a multifaceted sacrament. According to such a vision of the Christian life, this--and not forced adherence to any creed--would be the truth of Christianity for the (post)modern faithful. Many discard the lot of Borg's perceptions, some embrace him as a brother in the Spirit; others, like myself, toss back some of Borg's catch, but keep a few fine fish.
Sunday, August 16, 2009
In the first creation God's Word touched chaos, forming a composite unforeseen, from which arose life, finally us. And we looked back to our origin and the structure we were in, we sensed God, and declared it was God who made us. Which is correct, except that the composite was also partly responsible for our form in that it was the composite infused with God's Word that began the production of forms. To call this producer God is thus only partly correct: the composite is not itself God, but rather something closer to the Demiurge or Yaldabaoth--two mythical figures that are personifications of the composite, as Yahweh, the god of Mosaic law, is in large measure such a personification. †
The Messiah, the second creation, reveals the Word at the core of the composite. The Messiah shows us that the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath. Thus one should not bow down and worship God in mechanical rituals (such mechanics is the stuff of the composite) but rather one should realize one is a child of the Father and begin to bring about his Kingdom. †
The Gnostics perceived that Jesus seemed to be teaching of a God different from that of the Hebrew scriptures. Marcion built his whole movement on this perceived difference. Yet Jesus was not teaching of a different God: he was only teaching us to separate God from what in the traditional teachings was not God. As the Word of God himself Jesus revealed the creative Word active in the world. That world was and is the composite: it is chaos inflected by the Word.
Saturday, August 15, 2009
Dear Paul: Many thanks for your two letters. I find your remarks about Jesus' divinity as challenge to be entirely congenial. For me this has always been the point: the challenge of interpreting what Christianity is. Somewhere in the tension between the system of orthodoxy and the speculations and enthusiasms of Gnosticism is a vision more commensurate to the truth than either. Still off from the truth, certainly, but closer to the Christian meaning. †
Off from the truth, I repeat, because we cannot finally seize the truth in language--though I believe we can get closer than we have. Literature, with its more nuanced relation to both the powers and lack of power in language, is doubtless our best means to such truth. †
I'd be very interested to hear your ideas on the texts in The Clay Testament. My basic theological understanding hasn't changed much since the bulk of them were written. I'm always grateful for the interest of someone with kindred concerns. †
It sounds however that you've a lot of projects you're working on, and besides you describe yourself as overwrought. So I'd hope--since you mentioned you'd be reading some of my writing--that you feel no obligation to take it up as yet another project. †
Me too I'd like the chance to meet you in person some time. I value our correspondence. Best, Eric
Dear Paul: What I wanted to write you about was The Clay Testament. I discovered many things in writing those texts. They were mostly written by a young man who held to the Mallarméan principle that everything that happened to him happened in order to end up as writing. Writing subsequently was realized as a kind of sacrament: that is how I lived it, and continue to do so. †
Most of The Clay Testament was written during the 1990s, after my time in France and overlapping somewhat with my time working on French literature in Madison's graduate program. Some of the stylistic models and allusions come from French Renaissance literature, as anachronistic as that might be. But the quest was biblical, or biblical parodic. †
I don't think scripture is a closed book. As I've said, I think Christian truth in large part remains to be revealed. †
We have the orthodox understanding(s), we have the heresies, we have the Jewish tradition, we have our own experience of the world, we have the gnosis: these together must work as the forge from which we might take a more complete understanding of the truth. †
The four Gospels remain the most authoritative written sources. They also remain authoritative, I believe, as a genre model. †
Genre models are important if, as I would insist, writing is sacramental. †
I believe one can affirm the following: Reading the scriptures is always also a kind of writing; writing is sometimes also a way of reading the scriptures. †
These few comments are to explain how I understand the work of The Clay Testament. This work remains unfinished. I still seek others who might realize writing as a sacrament. Best, Eric
Thursday, August 13, 2009
I believe in one God, the Father, origin of the human soul, in whom we are grounded; from whose power meeting the Abyss the universe arose, creation flawed from the Abyss, shaped and unshaped by the Word and Spirit of the Father, toward redemption. †
And I believe in Jesus his son, the promised Christ, who brought the Father's Word to men, and spread news of the Father's Kingdom. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; conquering death through the power given him, he sits at the right hand of the Father forever. †
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the helper, the bringer of the Father's grace, who speaks through the prophets. †
I recognize the many catholic and apostolic churches, each part of the one Church, each following the light given it toward the coming of the Kingdom. †
I believe in the eternal life of the soul, the soul seeking redemption for itself and the world. I look for the redemption brought with the Kingdom. Amen.
I believe in one God, the Father, origin of the human soul, in whom we are grounded; from whose power meeting the Abyss the universe arose, creation flawed from the Abyss, shaped and unshaped by the Word and Spirit of the Father, toward redemption. †
And I believe in Jesus his son, the promised Christ, who came to men as the Father's Word, and spread news of the Father's Kingdom. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; conquering death, he arose from the dead, and sits at the right hand of the Father forever. †
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the helper, the bringer of the Father's grace, who speaks through the prophets. †
I recognize the many catholic and apostolic churches, each part of the one Church, each following the light given it toward the coming of the Kingdom. †
I believe in the eternal life of the soul, the soul seeking redemption for itself and the world. I look for the resurrection of the body, the redemption brought through the Kingdom. Amen.
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
C'étaient des femmes quelconques . . .She passes me on the street, unknown. She is standing still, deciding which way to go. She is squinting in the sun. For a moment I can see her. I can see that it was at least some months earlier she had written the word SCAR across her chest with a knife or perhaps the edge of a broken bar glass. The SCAR is permanent.
I could see the letters A and R through the opening of her blouse, but as the blouse was partially transparent I could make out, through the fabric, the other letters as well, reading SCAR in their entirety. I was left standing there as she walked away.
The word arched across her chest from the top of her right breast to the top of her left. It seems it was written with both fury and precision: the SCAR is deep, yet its letters are in proportion; the marks stand out in a rich rose color.
But she is not the type to have such a scar. Her blouse is rather fine to be framing it, and her age is perhaps 29. Her hair is long and auburn, her look calm and educated.
I find the scar irresistible on her--especially now that the perplexity of reading it has worn off and I have let her walk away to who knows where.
Why didn't I begin to talk with her? Had I, I know I would have been wise enough to talk of anything but the word there on her breast.
But even as I spoke it would have been the scar leading me to do so. It would have been evident there below her mouth even as she responded to me. Her mouth would have responded with words inevitably colored by this scar, colored rose red as my words also would have been inevitably colored.
To have an affair with such a woman, never asking about or even mentioning the word before you.
That I've been mesmerized by the sight of her becomes quite amusing when I contrast it with the fact that just before walking out onto the street where I saw her I'd been in the café reading the last pages of "Noms de pays: le nom." These are the pages in which Marcel dwells on the new generation of women, the elegance of whose manners and dress he cannot himself believe in. The contrast of two such texts read both during the same hour of a summer afternoon leads me to wonder: Can I believe both in the beauty of Proust's writing and in the beauty of the writing glimpsed on this woman's breast?
Friday, August 7, 2009
[. . .] thing as "formless matter." Evil resides rather in a kind of willful coup of some part of God's creative forming. Evil is a willful coup of forms that, taking unto itself further form-like character, propels what might be called pseudo-creations. Detached from the divine, pseudo-creations bear the stamp of non-being. They ring hollow, and this hollow ringing can be recognized as their mark of provenance.
Just as the ear needs to hear words of love and anger, so the eye, if it is to be the eye of man, needs to see the idols.
The earliest recorded dream is that of a Mesopotamian woman, written down thousands of years B.C. The woman was a temple guardian. One night she dreamt that she went into the temple and saw that all the idols were gone and that the people who should have been there worshiping were gone too.
This ancient dream shows an ancient anxiety, an anxiety still with us today. We fear that the idols will go missing and that if they do there will be only empty space where they once stood. We fear that if this happens we might be voided out as well.
Our eye, having nowhere to rest in the flatness of space, begins to wander aimlessly, and in that wandering our essence is lost.
Whether of wood or stone or otherwise, man needs the idols. This doesn't mean that man worships the idols. Such is the old misguided fear of the iconoclasts. The idols merely allow man's eye to focus, which is what allows man to worship at all. The idols bring the eye to rest in order that the spirit may roam to the right places, seeking the divine.
In ancient Israel, if the prophets succeeded in extirpating the idols, the Temple became an idol. In the Diaspora, the Jews had to carry their idols with them into exile: the new idol thus became the Torah itself, a scroll containing the sacred texts. The Jews became "the people of the Book."
As for the Muslims, they forbade all representational art (i.e. idols) so that the Koran itself or calligraphed texts from the Koran could take the idols' place. Under pressure of the interdiction against idolatry, the Muslims created the world's most striking examples of manuscript illumination, works that nearly take the breath away for their subtlety and balance.
In Europe the Protestant revolution made a similar displacement: the paintings of saints and the reliquaries had to go, they said, and they lifted up the Bible in their place. Translated into the vernaculars, the Bible could henceforth hold the eye of this new people of the Book.
That the Bible is now bound in one volume, that one can clutch it, that its words have the thin but stark substantiality of black ink on paper--all this allows it to continue in its function.
Along with the other nightmares our new millennium brings us, there returns the same ancient nightmare of the missing idols. The flat computer screen with its constantly shifting contents and its hypertext links leads the eye to wander in unprecedented ways. Where and how can the eye focus? Doesn't it rather become fatigued and diverted? I myself can never read a text online. If I want to really read something I must download and print it. But like many of the faithful, I wonder about the people around me. I wonder if they may not be drifting into a Diaspora they themselves only vaguely suspect: an ultimate Diaspora away from the possibility of worship, away from man himself. Is this unduly pessimistic? Is it only a bad dream? Uncertainty and persistence. Our concentrated waiting will tell.
May 1995. Mission accomplished.
The Ernst Robert Curtius Society. The Walter Benjamin Society.
Two imaginary literary endeavors the potential fruits of which. . . But as usual, it is for me a matter of two figures I much admire who are supposed to stand in stark opposition to one another.
I am always pitting such "opposites" together like this, and then projecting in my mind how one, then the other, approach at the level of writing what is the essential for me. Here it is a matter of projecting the imaginary work of two different societies: two different societies that, ideally, would overlap each other in the same manner the stages of the development of Rome overlap each other in the metaphor erected by Freud in Civilization and its Discontents.
Not an intellectual, but a scribe.
Not an intellectual, nothing quite so glorious. No program.
Rimbaud will be exiled to Cyberia. It is there that his legacy will be played out.
Mallarmé's Tombeaux for Poe and Baudelaire appear to be written more than anything under the aegis of the latter's brief biography of Poe and his epigraph from Gautier at the head of this biography.
"Celui qui veut aller à Dieu sans passer par le Christ qui est 'le chemin,' celui-là va au Diable, disait énergiquement Luther." --de Rougemont
Et celui qui veut reçevoir la grâce de Dieu sans passer par son Église qui est le chemin de cette grâce, celui-là va à Luther, dit énergiquement le Diable.
"On a coutume de déclarer inexplicable le succès prodigieux de l'Astrée." --de Rougemont
Cette phrase est d'un genre que l'on rencontre souvent quand il s'agit des grands succès du 17e siècle. Et pour raison: ce "grand siècle" français nous parait comme une pays impossible peuplé de poupées ridicules. Et pour raison. . .
Je pense comme une fille enlêve sa robe. --BatailleMOI: J'enlêve des robes des filles comme Bataille, d'habitude, pensait.
BATAILLE (là, dans ma chambre): Hah! Et vous pensez comme Simone Weil enlêve sa robe à elle!
BATAILLE: C'est-à-dire à peine, monsieur, à peine.
MOI: Vous avez raison. Peut-être. Néanmoins, j'écris comme Benjamin.
BATAILLE (pensif): Benjamin, le pauvre. C'est un esprit d'ange. C'est lui, la vraie pierre angélique. (Et Bataille, il n'est plus là.)
de Rougemont, p. 202.
The necessity of formulating toute une doctrine: "une action, une mise en ordre, une purification." I have known this necessity already, and have done much, perhaps the essential, in the Testament. My work hereafter should be but an elaboration and strengthening of this blueprint, a reading of it in the form of study and writing in its margins.
Certain figures fall in my estimation. It is perhaps strange that although I recognize in Nietzsche and Bataille the most stunning insight, the most impressive intellectual powers, I have for some time sensed in the former a kind of immaturity, and now sense in the latter a kind of irrelevant hypocrisy that only becomes more and more annoying as one studies him. How this great admiration of mine for the powers of these two writers (admirare) is to be reconciled with the fact that, in some more significant manner, I look down on them as evident products of ressentiment (!), how these can be reconciled I do not know.
Why should I attribute the deafness of Nietzsche and Bataille to ressentiment? This requires elaboration.
The phenomenology of the Chinese world.
That the Chinese do not feel the world is coming to an end, as so many Westerners do.
[. . .] house and home? My own distress in this face of this situation is probably partly responsible for these misanthropic fantasies. I imagine a careful realist who can represent, and thus somehow master, the city's ruin.
The hotels in which one can take a room for two-hours. I find this a mark of civilization. I believe it's illegal in the States for hotels to offer rooms for less than 24-hours. The stiff idiocy of triumphant Protestantism.
Swift on clers et secula: ". . .[whether these bishops] had never been compliers with the times while they were common priests, or slavish prostitute chaplains to some nobleman, whose opinions they continued servilely to follow after they were admitted into that assembly." (104)
The King of Brobdingnag on the British: "I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth." (107)
Does one find such dense and rhythmic fury before the early modern period? If one does not, is it perhaps a sign of our modern shallowness?
The conte philosophique: from 1) intellectual conundrum to 2) objective correlative to 3) writing.
Gulliver's Travels, III, v. The Grand Academy of Lagado. Satire after my own heart! Swift's work gets more impressive as it progresses. Can it reach any higher than this intellectual summit of Laputa?
Master Ah-Ming's Southern Estate, on the outskirts of Kaohsiung. I always end up in places like this. The structure seems somehow suspended in air, it looks more than anything like a huge and dilapidated cement houseboat. Our host, Ching-Ling's friend, is around sixty, and has a perfectly straight white beard hanging loosely from his chin. Ah-Ming's shrimp ponds are visible from the back of the mansion, and cover four or five acres.
Upon arrival, we are all invited to be seated, Ah-Ming cuts up a watermelon for us, then he positions himself at the first of the four organs, playing with great feeling a magnificent protestant hymn. The heat is stifling, there are four revolving fans on the ceiling, dozens of lizards scampering about the walls, and at least a hundred chickens rummaging through the chaotic gardens visible through huge open windows. In this setting, it is hard for me to describe the impression of these staid protestant hymns droning forth from the organs as if they were lamenting their exile from some Norwegian Lutheran church in Minnesota. The word wacky comes to mind, or the word crackpot, and the sentence: "I always end up in places like this."
At the end of each hymn drone the two long and familiar notes of the protestant Aaa-aa-ahhh-men-nn-nn, and these two notes, drifting out the windows and wrapping themselves round the palms, seem the most incongruous of all. Tired from the ride, I can only hear them as Aaa-aa-ahhh-Mingggg. With the heat and the rest of it, I feel I am beginning to go crazy.
Later I realize that this reaction is clearly based on my own naïveté. In fact nothing is more characteristic of the fruits of missionary work than this tropical scene I suddenly entered. It is just that I had never experienced tropical Calvinism first-hand. Even in the most sweltering climes, the early protestant missionaries clung to their salted European food, their thick European clothing, and this dour musical genre, bringing along with them, whenever possible, the cumbersome instruments on which it was played. Though nominally iconoclastic when it came to much of the Church's art, they demonstrated nevertheless a dogged fetishism when it came to these particular accoutrements of European life and faith: as if the black coat, or dried and salted meat, were objects necessary to the glory of the cult. The early protestant missionaries were not likely to undertake anything like the Jesuit Matteo Ricci's strategy of cultural mélange: they would not put on Chinese clothes or try to become Chinese so as to convey the Word. Better to die of sunstroke clutching an English Bible to one's breast!
After finishing several hymns, Ah-Ming begins to discourse in Taiwanese upon his philosophy of music. Music is a metaphysical language more powerful than speech. It addresses itself directly to the heart and carries the heart where mere discourse cannot take it. For Ah-Ming, music is a representation of life lived in faith.
Though I don't know traditional Chinese music theory, all of this seems particularly European, most particularly Romantic in fact.
Later in the evening, Ah-Ming took us out to his shrimp ponds to explain the trade, netting us a handful of shrimp fry and demonstrating a little blue and yellow "feeding boat" that cruises around one of the ponds, mechanically spraying food out of its sides according to a set timing device.
Ah-Ming is an excellent host. After the shrimp pond tour, we all cleaned up and he sent us in a taxi to the best seafood restaurant in the area, himself following behind on a motorbike. At the restaurant, where he is well known, he spent some time at the counter ordering dishes. The staff did its work with consummate speed and accuracy, and we were served an endless succession of dishes each more succulent than the last, all of it prepared from the freshest seafood, much of which was still swimming around its tank when we arrived. There was squid, sashemi, patties of fried fish roe, soups with fish, shrimp and crab. There were mussels, pork kidneys, escargot, fresh bamboo, and more. We found later than the meal was surprisingly cheap (given what we had consumed), but that our host had still spent almost $100 on us.
Ah-Ming apparently spends his money only on what gives him pleasure. As a good Taiwanese, he places good eating among the highest priorities. His garden is another of these priorities. Maintaining his mansion, however, is not. The whole of it is hopelessly dilapidated, and many of the rooms are cluttered beyond use, except, that is, for the use the chickens put them to as fine roosting territory. While I am here, I do not even intend to look in the basement, the floor of which is below the level of the ponds. Ah-Ming's windows are always open, there are no screens, and sparrows and bats fly in and out regularly, as do his dozen or so pet songbirds which come and go from their open cages. The varnish is wearing off on the plank floors, which warp here and there from exposure to water. A rather serious bees-nest is situated in the wall just behind the sink where we do the dishes.
Ah-Ming explains all of this with a smile: "Ahh! I've lived the single life for some years now."
The minute the sun dips below the horizon, the bats begin their careening around. And really, they must get quite hungry hanging upside down in the dark all day. Which gives me an idea for a new diet book.
In a characteristic gesture, Ah-Ming said that he would have five of the chickens caught and prepared for tonight's meal. This would mean one chicken for each of us. I don't know if this meal is going to come about. We'll see. But our host doesn't seem to be one not to carry out such an offer.
During the first hours of darkness, when the lights go on, lizards climb up and cover the powder-blue ceiling. They gobble up the insects attracted by the lights. At 8:30, there are perhaps seventy-five of them. But by 11:00, they have dropped in number to perhaps thirty, the rest having crawled back down to the nooks and crannies they came from. What seems to have happened is that by 10:00 or so the majority have gotten their fill of gnats and whatnot, and are now going to retire, calling it a day.
Missing the labyrinth already. --I'm reading Roberto Calasso's book on Greek religion. Though I was nearly ravished by the first fifty pages, I am sad to say that his arguments seem to get more and more gratuitous as the book moves on. The fall (with Greece as with Calasso's book) seems to come with the introduction of theory into the weave of things. All the facility of structuralist mythography starts spinning its wheels with the discussion of the Iliad. Rather troubling to see such a promising work drift into fast-paced, speculative typing, if that is what is happening here.
My other reading so far this summer: L'Amour et l'Occident, Hollier's book on Bataille, Baudelaire's essays on Poe, most of Poe's tales, Gulliver's Travels, and an irritating little book of art history called Sayonara Michelangelo.
The doctrine of the "natural goodness" of man is clearly among the early modern doctrines most to be blamed for the horrors of our century.
The satyr to Dionysos: "The only cure for the stings of love are the stings of a new love."
I have to face the fact that my work, culminating already in the Testament, weaves tightly together what is a very difficult mix of elements, among them my theological understanding of our existence, my understanding of the importance of writing, and my academic training in modern European thought. These are merely the basic elements, ignoring the voice which demands that they clash and meld together. Because of that voice, this culmination is for me a religion, after which there is no question of choosing to proceed with the study of any one of its elements to the neglect of any other. The weave of these elements is not simply a juxtaposition, but is something more perilous and luminous, a body that came forth from the flames. How could I now merely discourse about this body? I cannot, and should not try. Rather I should try to live according to this religion, as something opaque in itself, as if it were itself a doctrine whose mysteries I only partially know. Because in this doctrine the essential has already been vouchsafed to me.
We have been moving about, staying with friends. Nanto, Pou-Li, now Yuen-Lin. All cities situated around the same group of mountains.
At times I am overcome by a sentence like the one that hit me in the street this evening: I love this dismal place. And: I will always miss it when I am away. I immediately felt that the word dismal was not on the mark. For instance: East Berlin was dismal. The tangles of traffic and rubble, the heat and noise, do not quite make Taiwan dismal. Which is a wonder.
I love this dismal place. Such sentences do not come to me in Taipei. Perhaps because Taipei is nearly dismal.
I have already remarked that the Chinese do not seem to feel that the end of the world is coming. In general they seem to be content to live as well as they can on the surface of things. Which may not imply a criticism of the Chinese. Which may not even be a suggestion that they are epistemologically naïve compared to Westerners. The contrary may be true. In any case, those who live on the surface of things have a certain tenacity about them.
I oughtn't refer to this body that came forth from the flames as a doctrine. I know it to be rather--at least regards myself--a dispensation. The inauguration of a dispensation that needs to be worked out. This working out: writing; study; bringing my joy to others.
"Patient and erudite, Plutarch answered the question that he himself put: 'Who was Carila in Delphi?'"
A nightmare this morning. Somehow I had forgotten to leave the French department, and there I was, standing before my own section, having already taught the first week or so. Then I was outside, walking. A paper was due for Douglas Kelly, a paper I hadn't quite begun. The image of a few half-written paragraphs on a computer screen. In the place I was walking the ground was all torn up: a construction site.
That pathetic American phenomenologeme: that nothing has actually happened unless it makes it into the papers.
Interesting that Calasso's book begins to shimmer again when he leaves the Iliad.
Georges and Simone. A book of these two thinkers as they invade my thought. A long-term work.
The fragments begin as if lectures on their thought.
It is my family's wealth that has allowed me, in some measure, these researches. This is not to say that I have depended on it completely.
My family did not really approve of a life of thought and writing. There is nothing out of the ordinary in that, for they are, in a modest way, part of the bourgeoisie.
Nothing out of the ordinary, either, in the fact that they could not really articulate their disapproval according to some ethic appropriate to them, according to some philosophy. For in the particular class to which my family belongs, there is wealth with its attendant diversions, and non-wealth with its attendant stigma of failure. There is little articulation of anything beyond this dichotomy. And this dichotomy itself needn't be articulated, as it is signified everywhere one looks.
The idea of wise living, as a category of thought or endeavor, does not even exist in their heads. One is simply to waddle along, acquiring goods, gadgets, and prestige. And no one even bothers to defend this manner of living, which is taken to be self-evident. Even an infant will reach out to grab shiny and colorful things.
Principle of the book. One is not to present oneself, with one's concerns for this kind of work, as a neurotic outcast, a special case of bohemia. I am as healthy as the next man, if not more so. Which is to say? Which is to say: I am troubled, I am always on the verge of overflowing what I have learned are the prescribed limits of things, I feel I am the result of a formula, and that many other formulae are possible, certainly many that would overflow the limits in ways that are just the ways I intend.
[. . .]
Those close to Lycurgus (everyone and no-one) exclaim in exasperated whispers: What is to be done?
Inevitably a cover-up was the only possible course of action. This cover-up (along with the evident anachronism of the whole episode) is the reason we find no mention of the affair either in Herodotus or Plutarch.
The text of Lycurgus' Proust survived for some time, however, and a stylistic analysis by the little read late antique rhetorician [his name escapes me at the moment] reveals that Lycurgus would normally break up Proust's long French sentences with seven or eight Spartan sentences.
Noble and enviable laconism! Today we can only imagine what it was like to read this work.
Curiosity: desire for desire.
The question of the value of continuing the work Freud began.
"One is on the democratic left. Where else can one be?"
The acts of analysis, elaboration, play.
Literature is seen as a constant rescue operation.
A writer like Poe becomes a case of neurosis, to be cured. And the elements of that which the Poet revealed to us, they are each assigned their place under the tendentious gaze of the analyst. Tendentious? Why yes: for everything is on the way to a cure. The question of whether psychoanalysis is not inimical to literature.
Rand would read Poe's texts as first approaches toward a cure, as cries in the direction of a cure. Thus the place of the psychoanalytic critic: he is there to finish the work.
The question of whether or not psychoanalysis is not actually a new genre of literature.
Always remember the story of Mark, who eventually became a bicycle repair man. I knew him my first year in college. He had dropped out because of an existential crisis, or because of psychological problems. He didn't want to do anything. In fact, more than anyone I knew, he didn't want to do anything at all.
Mark's parents were on his case, "very concerned," and he didn't know how to tell his mother how dismal the world looked to him. He told her if she wanted to understand him, she should read Camus' The Stranger. And she did.
Soon after his mother calls him, hysterical, and his father is on the phone too, yelling at him. How could he do such a thing? They'd always treated him so well! How could he be so blatantly cruel to his mother?
Mark protested. He didn't know what their problem was. Finally his father read him the first few lines of the book: "Mother died today. Or maybe it was yesterday. I don't remember any more."
The father summarized: Obviously Mark wanted his mother off his back: he didn't even mind it if she died!
There was no escaping it now: Mark finally had to admit that he had never read The Stranger. Someone had told him about it, and he had gotten the impression that the book presented the same ideas he himself had. And this is perhaps true. For just as the mature Meursault would probably not have bothered to read The Stranger, neither did Mark.
Mark's father--mainly unhappy, I suppose, that he had had to put up with his wife's outburst--was doubly angered by his son's confession that he had never even read the book. After all, Mark had claimed his case was so hard to understand. He had put on airs. He thought he could play the intellectual based on half a semester of college. And he had claimed that this novel was the key to understanding him.
"At least," his father concluded, "at least when your aunt told you that reading the Bible could help bring you out of this state you're in--at least she was suggesting you read something she had taken the trouble to read herself!"
Hollier (157): "All of Bataille's reading of Hegel takes as its main line that the subject and knowledge are mutually exclusive."
The thick drape that has fallen over them. They cannot see through it. Only in certain times and places a tiny glimmer or spark of light. Their fatigue and confusion tell them they suffocate. Yet they cannot see the drape that has fallen over them. It has been there too long--they find it the normal state of things--it is thus invisible.
Only a glimpse of the sparks, followed by thought, can bring the drape into relief. But on the eyes of most this drape has come to weigh so heavily, they are so distracted in its darkness, how shall we get them to see what flickers so rarely through its weave?
Meph. I'll fetch him somewhat to delight his mind. (Dr. Faustus: II.i.82)
A fine epigraph for an age of diversion.
Interesting the nature of Faustus' desires: always to see, to see, to see. He would be a great traveler, and he would have his name admired. Rather modern.
The idea that one would fulfill one's lust by spending a day verifying mapmakers' work! Rather than indulge in them, he gets to see a morality play of the Seven Deadly Sins. Theorein. Marlowe's Faustus is a damned scholar indeed!
Reading Marlowe one appreciates all the more Shakespeare's genius for structure.
Faust. . . . I do repent and yet I do despair:
Hell strives with grace for conquest in my breast. (V.i.69-70)
In these lines, to repent is to have hope, whereas to despair is the path to hell. Admirable orthodoxy.
Meph. Thou traitor, Faustus . . .Yes, he who has hope is a traitor to hell. For hope is linked to faith.
Thus the danger orthodoxy sees in the via negativa. For on certain of its bypaths hope itself is abandoned.
Meph. ¬Therefore despair, think thou only upon hell . . . (V.ii.86)--.
Skelton becomes rector of the parish church at Dis. Oh, how fine!
My experience confirms what I felt some years ago concerning the "dull mugs" of my contemporaries. These dull mugs signify a lack of courage in the face of the world, a craven pragmatism.
I had wanted to read Tristram Shandy as well this summer. Ching-Ling has taken out a copy for me from the library at Tai-Da. But I haven't gotten it yet, and soon may be leaving.
On this visit I see for the first time in Taiwan a gay couple walking arm-in-arm through the night market. And a lesbian couple in one of the malls. Another male couple, eating dinner and, somehow, not concealing the signs of their homosexuality. Interesting how, suddenly, homosexuality is out and about here.
I remember when I was twelve looking through a catalogue of insects I had ordered. I was interested particularly in the large, exotic beetles, most of which came form a place far away, somewhere in the jungles of who-knows-where, a place called Formosa. I could order preserved specimens of these beetles for a price well beyond my allowance. One that I desired particularly was called, if I remember correctly, the Formosa Stag Beetle.
Now I am actually in Formosa. It is one of those dear ironies of growing up (and perhaps of the exotic as well) that I could now buy all the beetles I like, but that I no longer would know what to do with them.
I was recently in the mountains, by Sun-Moon Lake, and a shopkeeper had a terrarium full of Formosa Stag Beetles. I watched them battle each other, and asked
[. . .] After it, Curtius offers us Goethe as a stepping stone, as a possible link. What does this leave for us? It leaves us the possibility of living in this tradition, or the possibility of default.
But of course Curtius' view represents, already, a rather historicist manner of thinking. For the great writers who wrote between 1050 and 1750 were certainly not doing so in order to "preserve Western civilization." They were writing according to the accepted ideas of what was the true, the just, the Eternal. If Curtius would have us write in this tradition, he should demonstrate that, in fact, the traditional texts offer the most profound literary examinations of our experience as such.
Would we say that Curtius engages in a kind of "identity politics"? Does one who would study and valorize the origins of "our world" practice an identity politics? Where so much is put in terms of "the bases of," "the origins of," "the roots of"?
I am not one to suggest there is anything wrong with Curtius' conservatism. One senses a kind of radiant health in it. Curtius doesn't have to demonstrate anything for my sake. My questioning is along the following lines: Would there be a better way than his of going about this conservative polemic?
The case of Chaucer. A full involvement in the life of all classes of men, yet a detachment from faith in any particular class. He can write as a "bourgeois realist" and he can write in the high rhetoric of courtly love. He was ever busy in the world, here and there. He cultivated a talent for diplomacy.
Chaucer is certainly a fine model for a writer to follow.
The exemplary mood of Swift's Christianity, his Christian polemics.
The place of antique literature in Christian culture. The harmonistics of Calderón "in the sense of" the Christian Gnosticism of Clement of Alexandria. (Curtius, 244)
Against the Catholic poetry of Spanish "Baroque," we have "Italy, cramped by classicistic preoccupations, and France, infected with Jansenism." (245)
Gravity: "A mysterious carriage of the body to cover the defects of the mind." --Sterne quoting La Rochefoucauld.
I'm forced to recognize that much of my work exudes the tone so typical of contemporary writing, that tone which could easily be called cocky. What's unfortunate about this is that I myself am annoyed by this tone almost wherever I encounter it--and encounter it I do, everywhere.
Over the past few years I've begun to feel that this tone, this particular cocky tone, is something we need to escape from under. Because it has come to weigh upon us like a curse, or rather like the special sign that we are cursed. If one were to rewrite the Inferno now, one would have to add a special circle for the terminally ironic. But what would the punishment be?
One of Saíz's maxims, one that always returns to my consciousness, seems to remark this same predicament: "Irony is destiny."
Sterne's wonderful novel!
Everything about this work is congenial. I feel I am now in that privileged position of not yet having finished my first reading of it. And there are only so many works that can make one feel this way.
He gives me, under the heading, I would say, of vive la Bagatelle!, the following sentence: "his judgment, at length, became the dupe of his wit." So far--I am only at I, xix.--this most congenial formula characterizes no less than three of the work's major personages: Yorick, Shandy's father, and the narrator. A sign of its irresistibility for that magnanimous spirit Sterne.
And: "Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine . . ."
"Jason was old now, shunned by everybody. People told his adventures to their children, with the result that he couldn't find anyone to tell them to himself." (Calasso, 334)
II, iii. --At this chapter--tsk, tsk--Ching-Ling takes back the novel: she must return it to that furnace of a library.
Worse than a special circle for the terminally . . .
The Homeric perception of what comes after death: "Not another life, and not even a punishment for their lives, but an enervated and delerious physiology, which stops short of life."
This is ghosthood, the lost state of one who has not known God, who has not been seized by his Word, who knows no communion with the source of that Word--the source-beyond-all-appearance.
This is also the ghosthood of those who in life had been "lukewarm"--those mentioned in Revelation. Those who had been lukewarm and were "spat out"--that is to say left in their ghosthood.
What, then, does this Homeric perception mean?
The Romans and the historical sense: "Does not precisely this pious [Roman] treasuring of the past exclude a historical view of the world?" (Curtius, 252, note)
Here in the middle of this reading on the "Ancients" and the "Moderns," in this Taipei café, I look up to see the name "Homer" placed as trademark on the grill of one of those omnipresent blue trucks. As Harry Levin testifies for Curtius' book itself: "an eloquent testimonial to the continuity of Western culture."
Blue--not quite "wine-dark"--but blue: that quintessentially Greek color.
Thalatta-ta-ta-ta-ta- - -
"The public will read only 'ancient' poets, Horace complains." (235)
For the Middle Ages, the Christian Revelation and the Fathers belong to Antiquity. Thus the "dividing line" was not placed at 1BC.
The formula from the Catalogue of Women: "Or like she who . . ."
Could be used in Exemplary Lives.
One way the spell may be broken. The beautiful patroness of the café in which I spend some of my afternoons. She is part--only part--of the reason I go there, and my eyes often watch her as she goes about her work. But then, today, a man shows up whom I don't notice at first. In fact I don't notice him until he answers the phone, thus brining attention to himself as someone connected with the café. Then I see--as he turns toward me--that he has the same face as the patroness. But he is ugly; he is frail; he is even a bit hunchbacked. It seems the man is her brother!
The reflection of the sister's face in his is uncanny. It immediately breaks the spell of her beauty, which suddenly seems as though it had always been only the most meager of spells in any case.
Such a sudden evaporation of beauty can only push one to questioning. What was her beauty to begin with that it can be so swiftly dissipated by a bad copy?
And there is an attendant observation, which may lead one toward a fine question for Socrates, or a paradox at least. As for this brother, even if he is four years older than the sister, he naturally will take on in my mind the character that a parody takes on in relation to its original. Thus he inevitably arrives second: he could not have been in existence first. He is the nasty and tendentious parody that breaks the spell of the original.
Calasso's dogged insistence on the fleeting, on betrayal, on the transitoriness of things. These are that which is Greek. He grinds it into the reader.
He throws all of them against Christian culture as so many reproaches.
"For us a temple is not a house; it is a construction site. For us religion is ever incomplete. In a way, our worship is our attempt to complete it. Of course we realize we are getting no closer to completing our religion, and all we can say with any confidence is that in our attempting to do so, we know we are in some way closer to doing so--to actually completing our religion--than if we were not to attempt it at all. This is because our attempts bring us ever up against incompletion and lack--this horrible incompletion we face. And isn't this knowledge of incompletion that we have--isn't it a step toward the work of completion? I call it a work. Maybe that isn't right. But isn't it us especially who realize the necessity of this work?
"If you think there is a kind of hilarity in this incompletion--I did notice you laughing during the rites--so be it. We know that our divinity is one who laughs, and we think that he even laughs mostly at us. I see you are laughing again. Well . . . Perhaps you should consider joining us. Yes, I've thought it for some time.
"You haven't seen everything today--that's for sure. Don't think you have. And we know many hilarious stories about the history of our religion, stories that are much funnier than I am. But of course we can only tell these stories to initiates, those who've reached a certain point. So you can put away your notebook. We don't want just anyone laughing at us, you know.
"That I've told you this much shows I have faith in you. You seem to be a good sort. I tell you what I'll do . . ."
Baudelaire's wounded and whimpering pride, his touchy arrogance. His is the arrogance that feels always compelled to explain the bases of its claims, to snub in a manner clear enough for any "educated reader" to understand. Flaubert, more essentially aristocratic, wasn't interested in this kind of thing. Who is he trying so hard to convince? It is as if he were writing: "You don't understand me. Yes, you, Sir! Pay close attention, and I will explain the nature of my superiority to you." Baudelaire's ivory tower flies a flag.
Baudelaire's admirable description of Delacroix the man (section IV).
The Cosmo texts, though part of the Testament, are nonetheless a kind of allegorization of what is essential in it. They are a celebration of the essential. This is to say? This is to say that my good fortune in meeting Cosmo di Madison gave me the possibility of writing a kind of menippean celebration of what was my greater fortune in suddenly knowing the presence of God.
Many "religious" people would find this strange. They would say that laughter is not a manner in which to celebrate God's grandeur. They would insist that satire is not the proper genre. I should be singing hymns.
Tant pis! I am humorous at heart, and I have always felt that laughter--at least the kind of laughter I love--was indicative of magnanimity. And such magnanimity--is it not more appropriate to the grandeur of God--to the celebration of this grandeur--than the kind of stiff gravity one associates with these "religious" people?
"A mysterious carriage of the body . . ."
On our flight out, I can see Taipei through the smog, and I try to locate the Grand Hotel--somewhere near the mountains to the East of the city--but cannot. Then with my eyes I follow the highway to Keelung, Ya-Pei's home, and finally, as we increase in altitude, I can see less and less clearly through the haze. The last thing I see of Taiwan is that small island of rock visible from Cho-Fen, the gold-mining community in the northeast.
Sunday, August 2, 2009
[In August of 1996, I moved from Madison to Taipei. During my first year in Taiwan, I corresponded mainly with H., a friend of mine from graduate school.]
All that simply means that something is there, something which Barnabas has the chance of using, something or other at the very least; and that it is Barnabas' own fault if he can't get any farther than doubt and anxiety and despair. --Kafka's The Castle, K. to Olga
Our ways of thinking are fundamentally different. In this letter, in a summary fashion, I will take this up. You must know these differences yourself. I think it's curious we haven't fallen out by now, that we've managed to continue communicating. Of course I will take up only my side of the bargain, because your side I can only get at secondhand.
For one thing, I am a Christian. This is something you must have already recognized, though at what level you recognized it I'm not sure. But in fact I've been a Christian since before we met.
I ought to make clear at least something about how I believe, since the fact of this belief is something you--I know this much--find hard to accept.
First of all, you should know that I am not a Christian merely out of some kind of "conservative" cultural solidarity. These kind of non-believing Christians exist by the churchful, but I'm not one of them. They have been taken in by the Enlightenment; I have not. I actually do believe in God and the soul and revelation.
I'm not of the fundamentalist mindset either. My understanding of things is quite different from the fundamentalists. The revelation, as given in Scripture and elsewhere, is not a kind of literal transcription of the truths of the divine, but is rather oblique: it points to an Otherness that can't be represented in language in any case. This is not to say, however, that I think there is nothing true about the specificity of the Scriptures. The opposite is the case. I am not a believer in cultural relativism when it comes to such things. Rather, there is a specificity in revelation. The texts of Buddhism, for example, are not part of it, or are only so in a very weak manner. The poems of the Mayans, whatever they may have been, were not part of it, or only in some weak and tentative manner. The revelation given in the Bible is not that of a particular culture, but is rather the revelation as given to man as such. This is to say it concerns the destiny of man as such, the meaning of man as such.
These few remarks begin to define what I believe, what I mean by saying I am a Christian.
You and I know each other because of our mutual concern with literature. But of course here again our thinking is fundamentally different. I have some idea of your thinking of literature from being in classes with you and from reading your dissertation proposal. My own understanding of literature has little in common with yours. I may get at my understanding of literature by beginning with what I could call the literary absolute.
For me, the texts of the Bible are literature's highest meaning. Literature's ultimate meaning is to be the textual medium of revelation. It is a matter of text, and revelation. Literature is that which results from the meeting of these two. Even the manner in which many of the most important Biblical texts came to be written--as a choosing, an editing, a kind of layering one could indicate by the metaphor of a heavily beleaguered palimpsest--even this for me makes the texts of revelation more compelling as the examples of literature. They define from then on what the word literature is to mean.
Literature for me is a question of canons even more than it is a question of rhetorical tropes. The Biblical texts are the Primary Canon and the great texts of Western literature are what I would call the Secondary Canon. They are a secondary canon because they are written after the fact of and under the dispensation of revelation. Following this understanding, the literature of classical antiquity must then constitute a Third Canon, being neither the Primary Canon nor the literature of the culture of the revelation, but being important to the formation (mainly the generic formation) of that latter literature. These remarks indicate how literature is arranged according to my understanding. If I continue reading and studying literature, it is partly in the hopes of an ever-greater understanding of the relationships holding between the major canons. This isn't to say, however, that literature is a scholar's game. If I read Villon or Dostoyevsky with particular delight, it's because these canonical writers articulate parts of a world whose general structure and meaning is founded in the revelation given in the Bible. And this is to say, for one who believes, that they articulate parts of the world as such. Thus it is that those who are not interested in the real world are not much interested in literature.
This is not an apology for the West. Of course I'm writing of the world as such in a manner that would make cultural anthropologists and the politically correct cringe. That doesn't concern me. There is in fact much offered by the West (such as the cultural anthropologists themselves) that doesn't concern the world as such. I mention current academic intellectual culture, but could choose the West's "literary" culture as well. I could take up the American Thomas Pynchon as an example.
As for the world represented in a Western writer like Pynchon, it is amusing, to be sure. It is full of interesting gags and twists, colorful and subtly modulated; the reader enjoys moving about in this world as one enjoys being taken into a film. I've once or twice suggested you read Pynchon because there's something unique in his work, something entrancing. He is, or at least for a time was, a major American writer. Ultimately, however, I don't find Pynchon's writing to be serious literature. It is not Literature. His is a flimsy world that does not recognize the bases of its being. It is one that is becoming quickly a world of mere surfaces, a dumb show of empirical data--nothingness. This is why many who seriously take up Pynchon as a subject of study will read his books five or six times, read much of the criticism, then suddenly feel a total lack of interest fall upon them. Diversion is not the stuff of life: it is rather something to keep one from taking up the stuff of life. The need for reality eventually makes one tire of such writing. But the readers around us, what do they do when they tire of a writer like Pynchon? Since so many of them are only willing to read contemporary writers, they put down Pynchon only to pick up another contemporary with similar strengths. Such writing as Pynchon's--and the West offers much of it now--shows a soul impoverished, a soul that has been seduced into believing that the dumb shows of science and technology are all there is. Intuition shut down, the soul's hearing shut down, language's revelatory power curtailed, the data of the senses organized by a logical machinery much smaller than language itself. Of course the literature arising from this general situation is comic. It is merely comic. This is to say that it is not even humorous in the stronger manner in which much of the great European literature is humorous. Don Quixote, the story of Jacob and Laban, Prince Myshkin. This latter strong humor, the possibility of this humor in man, is one of the mainstays of my understanding of man's place in the world. The critics that most interest me have all understood this humor to some degree: Bakhtin, for instance, or Benjamin.
I am a Catholic in most things, but am not certain if I am a Catholic, or rather if I can be accepted as a Catholic. At least many Catholics would probably not recognize me as such. There are things about which I believe the Catholic Church is wrong.
The Catholic Church is most crucially right in its understanding of the Mass. The Mass is the ritual that defines the destiny of man: it is the central sacrament. The Mass is the gathering around which men might eventually gather. Perhaps they will eventually gather around it. This is something the Catholic Church knows better than the other branches of the Church.
I know you must disagree with these things, and of course I can live with such disagreement.
We are both concerned with the question of how language reveals presence, but the register of the presence that language most essentially reveals--that is one basis of our difference.
That you are a secularized Jew makes you even further from me than if you were a believer in Judaism. For regardless of the gripes Jews may have with Christians, I don't have as much gripe with Jews as I do with the secular. The fact that you are a secularized Jew means to me that I have no reason to consider you other than, say, the secularized Christians all over America. This is to say, in part, that I don't know in what you consider your Jewishness resides. I know this is an infinitely discussed question, one that receives much of its immediate importance from the nightmares of the twentieth century.
The Jews as a religion are very close to the truth I follow, and their understanding of the truth of revelation is of great concern to me, much more, say, than the Zen Buddhist understanding of truth. I would never step on a Menorah, though I would certainly step on Diderot's Encyclopedia, or even Voltaire's hand. So you should know where I stand.
That you and I have managed to communicate. Perhaps it will continue. It is like Origen maintaining a correspondence with Lucretius.
ON THE EPIGRAPH--
I had read most of Kafka before, but it was only recently that I read The Castle.
Some readers find in Kafka an apparent restatement of the universe projected by the Kabbalists. Benjamin is the great exponent of this reading. Benjamin's Kafka wrote allegories of a kind of Kabbalist faith or hope. Other critics disagree by leaning on the fact that Kafka was not a "religious writer," that he was an atheist, that he was not a scholar of Kabbalism, etc. I am one of those who think that Kafka needn't have been a "religious writer" or a Kabbalist to write the kind of allegories he wrote. These allegories are Kabbalist allegories, if you will. Kafka was a Prague Jew, after all.
The dichotomy set up between a "religious writer" and a "secular writer": what does it amount to unless we are considering precisely weak writers or journalists or, again, cultural anthropologists?
The Castle seems to me, after this first reading, a kind of allegorical romance. K.'s quest is nearly fruitless--that is apparently the case--and yet K.'s life in the shadow of the Castle seems more a life than that, say, of Kafka's father in the shadow of a cash register.
Kafka's K. shows a certain daring in his quest. He is not struck with the same kind of unreasonable awe that strikes the people of the village. Threatening or not, he would be there where the Castle's power is manifested. He would know its workings and sees such knowledge as the only thing worth struggling for. Any other activity--cobbling, tanning, running an inn--is a species of biding time that concerns him not.
Does Kafka, despite his atheism, make it into what I have called the Secondary Canon? Evidently so.
Was Chretien de Troyes a "religious writer"?
Saturday, August 1, 2009
Rimbaud's oeuvre is a pack of lies.
Rimbaud was too busy barking and howling to listen.
What kind of poet is this anyway?
An admirable teen rebellion. Beautiful blue-eyed Demiurgette. Pint-sized Promethiite.
We scribes don't give a damn for his virtuosity, his pyrotechnics.
A poet of the visual spectrum. All in all a rather more charming child of the Enlightenment than most. Toy trains, the Corpus Hermeticum, romantic oriental fetishes, obsessive inventiveness, the "new".
His color is nasty blue--the same blue as on our flags, but more fluorescent. Blue approaching the shiny blue of certain species of hornet.
Baudelaire's colors are faded gold leaf, black, purple, blood red, black, Avignon ochre, ash, ivory or ebony flesh, black, etc.
Baudelaire: the master of Latinity in our two centuries.
A clear night sky. After so much hashish--this time!--how the stars flatten out and press down upon me!
Tiring of the sky, he lies on his side near the campfire, gazing into it. --[--We know he doesn't really understand mysticism. --He has perhaps read of the Zoroastrians? --Who doesn't know of these hashishin microcosms?]--
After so much hashish--this time!--the crumbling logs heaped in the fire become for him a landscape in flames.
Off the top of the hill formed by the logs in flames, bits of ash rise with the heat; then, whirling, descend. They are tiny angels spinning in grey-white woolen robes.
On the left, a darkened log crackles and smokes. Ruts have broken into its surface: the charred remains and sounds of a battle.
On the right, embers glow in white and mystic heat: Oriental splendor! The wisdom of ages!
The fire hisses and cracks, and as the stoned youth turns to gaze upward, eyes stinging from the heat and the drug, he sees brown and black curdles of smoke rising away and rolling. --Are they the lost time of men? --Are they that which is burned away? --Are they the remains of all the struggles and nights?
The starry sky behind the campfire, the vague flicker of light against the trees, stretch down like a canvas or a basket, the whole scene collapsing into the broken perspective of hashish and medieval murals, turbulent foreground pushed up against flat background.
Down at the very bottom--wrapped round the hottest embers like a mantle of purest candy--the soft glow of blue flames: the liminal color.
Once--when I may have dared to taste!
[. . .] XI.
I understand Rimbaud. I look into him as into a mirror. I understand his shame. It is all true, all of it. It is a shame so absolute. It is the encounter. All of Europe. It is much deeper and harder than . . . It is a wretchedness in the very Shaman's Dance of Europe, a wretchedness never cleansed or appeased, for which no sacrifice . . .
Case in point.]