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.