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Stewart K. Lundy

The retrospective sayings of the mystic become the regurgitated maxims of the pedant.

The mystical experience is ineffable, by definition, and yet mystics are invariably compelled to write. What the mystic writes after the fact is not meant to be systematic, comprehensive, or even an accurate representation of his mysticism. But leave it to the gate keepers to ruin the words of another. Pendants pilfer from the mystic’s coffers and reduce those marvelous and contradictory emotions to dogmatic maxims.

A verbal articulation of an entirely non-verbal experience necessarily falls short. What pedants do to the mystic, they also do to the poet. In both cases, clinging to footnotes, journals, and excessive psychoanalysis, the original experience (mystic or poetic) is concealed within a labyrinth of pseudo-intellectual criticism.

An excellent poem appears simple in its complexity, and above all easy in its difficulty. A poem appearing strained or artificial (though it is regularly both) is a failure.

While we marvel at the final product, any thought of the artist is secondary to the immediate experience of excellence. There seems to be something wrong with what so many critics do: reconstructing the scaffolding around the living poem, presenting the sketches and precursory plans for it until the life of the poem is altogether extinguished.

The problem is not what kind of followers performs the investigation, but the mere fact that they are following and not being their own leaders.  Here the singular and spontaneous sayings of the sage are reduced to religion.

Sages like Confucius spoke not absolute maxims but rather what the unique moment demanded, never to be repeated.  King Solomon did not mean for every child to be cut in two, or even for any child to be cut in two. And this is what made him wise: knowing what the present moment demanded and answering its call. What pedantic followers do is corrupt the original spontaneity of saints and sages to magico-mechanical maxims, a readymade “cure” for any situation.

Joe Weil wrote about these asinine “keepers” of a poet’s legacy in his piece The Inward Soul: Dickinson and St. Theresa of Avila:

Dickinson’s gate keepers make me vomit. Her worshipers make me want to kick them in the shins….To look for evidence of her sexuality is like 19th-century scholars looking for historic proof of Jesus.

What Christians do now – conservative and liberal – is to obsess over historical fact and both ignore the admonition to unconditional Love. I hope Ananda Coomaraswamy proves right: “Most likely Christianity also in the near future will succeed in breaking the ‘entangling alliance’ of religion and history, from which the mystics have already long emerged. There cannot be an absolute truth which is not accessible to direct experience.” We do not need the mediation of history or criticism to encounter what is omnipresent.

The “gate keepers” of religion and of poetry are one and the same.  The pedantic critic is blind, leading others into a pit of his own creation. The pedant (since he cannot see) ensures that no one else can see. The critic gouges out the eyes of the other. Similarly, Jesus condemned the false knowledge of the Pharisees: “But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.”

Followers soften the ferocious words of the ones they follow into palatable household sayings – comfortable, no longer feral, no longer dangerous, no longer potent.  Civilized critics attempt to tame the God/Beast in the poet, saint, or prophet. It is the domestication of the saints which gnaws at the heart of this household idolatry. Their vitiated words may be present in a home, but their spirit is long absent.  No longer appalled, we are encouraged. By making these words ordinary and robbing them of all strangeness, we are robbed of actually encountering those words at all.

Daniel Silliman’s excellent blog captures this very spirit:

[R]ather than easy adoration, the first response to St. Francis would be to feel appalled, threatened and offended. It would mean wanting to tell St. Francis he’s wrong, wanting to disagree, wanting to fight.

What the sage says is not immediately tasteful. In fact, if you are not offended, you are probably no longer reading what that sage is saying. When Jesus is reduced to a comfortable position thanks to extensive speculative theology, we cease to hear his revolutionary sayings. In the same way, Siddhartha too is reduced to a God-man by lay buddhists and clergy alike – Jesus, Siddhartha, and Dickinson are all worshiped, but none are taken seriously.

Who actually hears the words of Jesus anymore? Perhaps it’s only those who have never heard all the retrospective explanations of Jesus who can hear him authentically.

Those who bastardize the spontaneous sayings of saints into comfortable maxims for coffee mugs make me want to kick them in the shins. I want to kick worshipers precisely because they make me not want to kick saints in the shins.

It’s not just others who do this (though it is, also) it’s always that clinging ego that is always mine which prevents me from encountering the words in front of me.  That egoic character might be in an Other, but that ego is always “mine” and solution is found in the spirit of the saints and sages.  To blame someone else for preventing me from entering the Kingdom of Heaven is for me to prevent myself. The best science occurs when ego is suspended (when “I” am removed from the equation). The most difficult thing to do is simply to let things be as they are.

When Jesus addresses the “rich young man” (in possessions, in knowledge, in morality), it is not simply physical possessions but the very sense of “mineness” which prevents the man from entering the Kingdom of Heaven. It is only by dying to self that we can enter heaven or enter a poem.

“For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” It is always only the “least of these” who can enter the kingdom of heaven. The weak, the ignorant, the poor – these are those who, because they have so little in terms of worldly possessions, can suspend their everyday sense of self and encounter the world as it really is: they can see Jesus, and they can read a poem.

If I suspend my ego, I can, at times, be transported into the work before me – despite the residue of criticism. It’s not easy to do the simplest of things.

And then Jesus is criticizing me and no one else, St. Francis provokes the self-defensive urge to kick his shins, and Dickinson I forget as long as I read her poems.

Entering a new language is entering a new world. But what does it mean to be “in” a world? The word “in” originally had no spatial connotations. To say that someone was “in” something meant that they existed “in anger” or “in love.” Love and anger are not places, but modes of being. But this means that you can say these statements another way: to be “in anger” is to be angrily and “in love” is to be lovingly. To be “in a world” means to be worldly.

When you enter a new language, you enter a new mode of being. This is true not simply of English, Chinese, Farsi, etc. but also of the language games of technologies, skills, and other modes of thought. As long as there is a new vocabulary, it is a new language game, and anywhere there are new rules is a new world. Entering a new language is not simply acquiring a new means of communication, but, as Micah Towery said, learning a new way of thinking. I would go even further: to enter a new language is to enter a new way of being.

As Okakura Kakuzo said in The Book of Tea, “All translation is treason.” This is very true, but I would modify this: all we have is translation. All we have is treason. Every conversation is predicated on our essential being-guilty. To put it another way, discourse only proceeds when we remain open to the possibility of miscommunicating our ideas. Closedness is the greatest enemy to communication and to healthy relationships. If there is ever such a thing as Original Sin, it is most obvious in language – the mere birth of language brings about contradictory concepts. Language unites and separates. All discourse, though, requires concerted effort. The word “relationship” is overused, and there is nothing inherently good in having a relation to anything – relations can be good or bad, as my wife’s in-laws consistently prove.

Every action (and word) has a limitless number of consequences, most of which cannot be predicted. Because of the unpredictability of spontaneous conversation, the only way to sustain dialogue is forgiving the unintended consequences of the Other’s words (and our own).  Forgiveness is therefore the very life of conversation and the heart of discourse. Without a constant flow of forgiveness even disagreement is impossible.

Forgiveness frees the victim and the victimizer from the crime. The victim is freed from the inhibition of the grudge, and the criminal is freed from the bondage of her sin. Engaging a new language is one of trial and error, but also always forgiveness of errors.

So, while we are all guilty of treason and are thus all guilty, we are all also in need of forgiveness. Whatever truth may be, it is always expressed in a historically-bound vocabulary and cannot be abstracted from our historical situation. But what makes up our vocabulary? Whatever  conditions affected our species, our countries, our families, and finally ourselves. Since none of these conditions are ever identical, no vocabulary is identical and thus no world is identical. Translation is treason, but treason is our own means of being in the world.

Ingmar Bergman called Tarkovsky, “the greatest.” It’s hard to argue with Bergman. While Tarkovsky is not a well-enough known director, this is probably just as well because virtually anything popular becomes bastardized. Tarkovsky will probably never be “popular” simply because of the interminable length and oppressive mood of his films.

Tarkovsky created most of his films under the watchful eye of the USSR. The Soviets violently edited (and at other times completely censored) every film he made. His works were considered too politically ambiguous, religiously symbolic, and (of all things) too violent for Soviet tastes. Even the anti-Soviet nationalist Alexander Solzhenitsyn did not approve of Tarkovsky’s violent portrayal of Russia’s past. Because of the repression of the Soviets, Tarkovsky’s films are even more shrouded in poetic mystery. The persistent theme of doubt in all his works would make any sincere Soviet anxious.

Andrei Tarkovsky made an important film called Andrei Rublev, about a doubting monk, Russia’s greatest iconographer. While this seems tedious, it is anything but dull.  The film feels very much like Bergman, from whom much of Tarkovsky’s style emerged. Like Bergman’s Seventh Seal, Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev is a slow-paced journey with monks, holy idiots, existential discourse, and symbolic animals.

We modern people forget how extraordinary it is for us to have such extravagant colors in our everyday lives. Even a hundred years ago, this was not the case. Common place things like big red barns were not painted that way to exhibit color, but because red paint was the cheapest at the time.

Color in human creations has been rare until recently. Perhaps humans have changed. It is certainly odd that neither Bible nor the Iliad once speak the color of the sky. The Iliad barely speaks of more color than the “purple gore.” But colors obviously have had significant meaning for people. Visionary colors are important, like the coat of many colors worn by Joseph or the majestic stained glass of Christendom. Aldous Huxley wrote in The Perennial Philosophy that this “visionary experience” is the entire point of self-deprivation which the desert fathers inflicted upon themselves. Asceticism was rewarded by psychonautical adventures.

But for a work about Russia’s most important iconographer, there is precious little color. But a film in black and white representing medieval lifestyles is realistic – much more so than a simple photograph or image. Tarkovsky does not create an image of another time, he creates an icon. You enter that time very readily and watch as the slow and brutal tale unfolds.

The most important moment is at the very end, after all the mindless suffering under the Tatars. It happens quite suddenly, but magically. After watching a film in black and white, you forget you’re watching in black and white. That’s when Tarkovsky makes his move. Suddenly, the film bursts into glorious color. The experience is worth the entire film. It reminds me of reading Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. As you read long, you find words, words, words – and suddenly, when you turn the page, it’s blank with a small sketch of a fly. The jarring experience is nirvana and a radical re-vision of how we normally encounter the world. This same effect is employed (multiple times) in his film Stalker, an excellent and dreary work.

The sort of revelatory encounter presented through all the doubt and angst of Tarkovsky’s films seems almost contradictory, but the essence of Tarkovsky lies in the elusiveness of reality and the religious experience surrounding its ultimate encounter. In his film Stalker he presents the tension between the need to know and the near-impossibility of knowing. The Russian word “stalker” is directly related to the English word “stalker” but without the creepy connotations. I think a better translation might be “follower” — even “disciple.” Stalker begins with sepia-tones and dreariness not unlike Andrei Rublev. After the audience is accustomed to the dull brown tones, suddenly the film bursts into color as the travelers cross a threshold into a dreadful and mysterious territory.

The character named “Stalker” travels with two companions named “Writer” and “Scientist” — one with a poetic sentiment, another with a scientific, and then Stalker himself. The Christic images are evident as he  paradoxically leads by following. Rather than heading up the group, he tells them where to go and then follows them. Stalker has an ugly wife and a mutant child named Monkey. He is timid, meek, and apparently a broken man. This journey of faith is almost explicit and incredibly powerful. Often Stalker makes his companions take illogical routes and circumnavigates perfectly obvious paths. The still tension of the unknowable dangers holds the entire film together. One’s sense of time and space are intentionally distorted (intentionally) as sounds remain unheard when we would normally hear them, and rooms become flooded after only a few moments. The distortion of sound lends to the distortion of space and leaves one with a sort of pure existential tension. The same dread drags us through Andrei Rublev but is majestically “resolved” in the dynamic stillness of Rublev’s icons.

The visionary experience is only possible because of suffering not in spite of it. Without the immanent pains of life, there is no transcendence. A doctrine often overlooked in Buddhism is that samsara (suffering) is nirvana. They are one and the same. Because of samsara there is nirvana, because of immanence there is transcendence. Because of becoming, there is being. Tarkovsky must be watched by any self-respecting soul.

Poetry changes when you memorize it. Rather than being a subjective observer viewing an inanimate object, you enter the world of the poem when you memorize. The “departure” from this world and the entrance into an alternative world isn’t science fiction or fantasy. A world is not a physical location, but a way of existing. To indulge in a poem is to taste another world (vocabulary). To memorize a poem is to inhabit another world.

As I have been memorizing Snow’s transcendent translation of Rilke’s Duino Elegies, I have become impressed — no, the poem itself has pressed itself against me. As Rilke says in the first elegy, “And even if one of them pressed me suddenly to his heart, I’d be consumed in his greater existence [Dasein].” Or as Meister Eckhart says, when two beings meet, the lesser one must surrender its being. As man before an Angel, the reader is before the Poem.

I enter the Poem. My everyday “I” is absolved (or dissolved) by suspending my casual vocabulary. My “I” is circumscribed by my idle talk, a vocabulary which is necessarily suspended when engaging a poem.

Memorization originally meant “to write down” but memory existed before the written word, even if only relatively briefly. History as we know it is only possible through written words, even though words suffer a “death” upon leaving the air and being chained to the page. Even if we don’t agree with the totalitarian metaphysics of Plato, we might still say that discourse is violated when translated into letters. The words on the page are not the same as the words we write down.

Due to the perpetual change of our individual selves (temporally, spatially, physically, psychically…), our words never reference the same thing because our words have mutated the moment we speak them: we never mean the same thing as anyone else by a single word — not even our past selves. Written words are static, rigid, and inflexible… yet we are always changing, so our hermeneutical situation is always different, meaning our interpretation of written words is always different. The life of poems is breathed into the written word when the written word is recited.

Memorization, that interminable and exhausting process, places us in the middle of a ‘dead’ vocabulary to which our definitions give life. Spoken word is (hopefully) spontaneous, fluid, and flexible. As Alfred Corn said in his “Department of Records” post, life is change, but change taken to its extreme is death. I would modify this and say that life is a series of infinitesimal deaths. The only way to remain the same is to change. Old habits bind us to a dead version of ourselves — tired, old, and worn out selves.

Memorization forces a radical break in our habitual mind. We are contained by our casual vocabulary, even imprisoned by it. It is nearly impossible to escape it. Memorization breaks the chains of uncritical routine. The “radical break” of memorization is a severance from thoughtless “interpretations” of poetry.

Average everyday people (in most cases) presume the meaning of poetry as a whole (before engaging it!) as 1. Meaningless, or 2. Common sense. The “meaningless” presupposition is closer to the truth; it at least posits the difficulty inherent in interpeting poetry. The “common sense” approach is banal, even obscene. What people consider to be “common sense” is the interpretation of the They-self which is always at odds with individual self-realization. “Common sense,” by asserting knowledge beforehand, conceals the point of departure for any discourse: being-wrong.

Without presuming the possibility of being-wrong, there is no need for investigation, and certainly no need for writing. It is because we are wrong that we write. We also memorize in order to see more clearly, which is one again grounded in our essential being-wrong. In order to become right, we must realize we are wrong, which no “common sense” approach permits.

Even just reading poetry aloud is better than reading silently — silent reading is a relatively new phenomenon. But memorizing engages reading, writing, speaking, hearing, and memory. Memory is one of our most complex powers and is interconnected with our other senses. Memorizing actually brings a poem to life.

Perhaps more importantly, memorizing poetry brings you to life. You empty yourself of yourself and allow a new world to consume you. You emerge into a new light shed on old words.