Essays: M.C. Gardner

 LITERATURE  

(Essays are stacked ↓

or linked by line…)

 AS ANY STONE: FALSTAFF & SOCRATES

OTHELLO ESSAY & MONTAL ARIA

HISTORY OF THE BIBLE

•PASTERBOARD MASKS: ESSAY ON THE BOOK OF JOB

•ECCLESIASTES AND ISAIAH

•THE EYES OF DEATH

•TAKES A LICKING AND… (ON TIME)

  •  PLATO
  •  THOMAS MANN
  •  HOMER: THREE ESSAYS

The above are below↓

AS ANY STONE

“Wherefore, I say let a man be of good cheer about his soul – who has adorned the soul in her own proper jewels which are temperance, and justice, and courage and nobility and truth – in these arrayed she is ready to go on her journey to the world below when her time has come.” (1)

– this by Socrates in the hour of his death.

Before an impending battle a Prince counsels an old Knight: “Thou owest God a death.” The old man contemplates the claim. He replies: “Tis not due yet, I would be loath to pay him before his day. What need I be so forward with him that calls not on me?” (2)

– this by Falstaff before the battle of Shrewsbury.

Two thousand years separate these sentiments. In the first scene we have a crucifixion four centuries before the drama of the Cross – an old philosopher expostulates among friends and accepts death in a proffered dram of hemlock. In the second, an old man walks the tail end of his wit with a friend, on the eve of battle – shortly before rejection, banishment and death. (3) In the first the philosopher rejects any plan that might forestall is demise. In the second the old man pleads for his friend’s continued affection:

 “Banish Peto, Banish Bardolph, Banish Poins… but banish plump Jack and banish all the world.”

 Prince Hal, thereafter as King Henry V, the mirror of all Christian Kings,  banished the old sot and by metaphoric extension, crucified  all the world. Henry’s celebrated epithet is among the most perverse in the history of drama. (4)

To compare Falstaff to Socrates will seem, to some – equally perverse. We are conjecturing an echo in time. An echo Shakespeare may have discerned as he conjured the language to properly bury the fond old Knight. Socrates had been a soldier during the Pelopennesian War. At Delium, in 424 BC he was the last Athenian to retire in retreat. It was reported that he saved himself by glaring at the approaching Spartans. (5) At Potidaea, he saved the life of Alcibades and then refused a prize for his valor. (6)

In exact opposition to those reports Shakespeare gives us the exploits of Sir John. Far from a frightful glare Falstaff feigns death to survive the ferocity of the battle sighted above. He then discovers the body of the Prince’s rival, Hotspur. He loads the dead man on his shoulder and takes credit for the kill. He then proclaims his own fitness for the battle’s prize of valor. And yet, mayhaps these contraries such unity do hold.  What, if not Socratic, is Falstaff’s dialectic on honor:

“Can honour set a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honor hath no skill in surgery, then? No. What is honour? A word…Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. ‘Tis sensible, then? Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No… Therefore, I’ll none of it.” (8)

A mirror is as pointed a metaphor as any in a poet’s arsenal. Shakespeare’s glass not only reflects but, as well,  inverts. It is here that we intuit the conjunction of a drunkard, cutpurse, coward, glutton and cheat with the advocate of temperance, justice, courage, nobility and truth. History and drama fuse in nine plays that chronicle four centuries of Shakespeare’s Kings – Comedy and tragedy commingle in the three that report the life and death of England’s most uncommon commoner.

In the scene immediately proceeding the report of Falstaff’s death – the King, fresh from his coronation, calls upon God’s witness while pronouncing death to three conspirators. Before the end of his speech he will invoke Deity three additional times The final invocation is to advance the imperial disposition for the rapine of France:

“Cheerily to sea; the signs of war advance: / No king of England, if not king of France.” (8)

In Mistress Quickly’s account of Falstaff’s death she says she heard him cry out “God, three or four times.” The echo is distinct – the image and morality are inverted. The inversion becomes increasingly evident in each subsequent reading of the plays. It is then that Quickly’s description of Falstaff as a “christom child” stands in stark contrast to the mirror of all Christian Kings,designated by the chorus in Henry V. When we hear the slow witted Bardolph declare of his lost companion: “would that I were with him wheresome’er he is, in heaven or in hell!” – the King’s perfidy is thrown into even higher relief. The King’s father, Henry IV, is most famously remembered for the Murder of Richard II and the shadowy guilt that plagues him in his soliloquy on sleep: “Then happy low lie down / uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” (9) The King’s insomnia is contrasted with Falstaff’s. Shakespeare avers that the betrayed knight sleeps in Arthur’s bosom. To what bosom Henry V is consigned is left to our conjecture.

The idiomatic prose that the poet glories for the death scene suggests the regard in which he holds the broken-hearted old profligate. Shakespeare not only hears an echo from the past but also anticipates a metaphor that will resonate in the apotheosis of his art, shortly after a storm blasts an unprotected heath and cuts a willful King to the brains – The stage direction reads: “Enter Lear, fantastically dressed in wild flowers.” In the raiment of a child he ascends to a loftier throne than any he had occupied in Medieval England:

“I pardon that man’s life. What was thy cause? – None does offend, none I say, none.” (10)

In like manner Mistress Quickly consoles Sir John. He need not think of an imagined judgment. At the hour of death he plays with flowers and smiles upon his finger’s ends, as if a child. Socrates, Falstaff and Lear – not a bad trio they – and, in death and the poetic imagination of Shakespeare, companions all…

From London, circa 1597:

PISTOL: Bardolph, be blithe; Nym, rouse thy vaunting veins; Boy, bristle thy courage up; for Falstaff is dead, and we must yearn therefore:

BARDOLPH: Would that I were with him, wheresome’er he is, either in heaven or hell!

HOSTESS: Nay, sure, he’s not in hell: he’s in Arthur’s bosom, if ever man went to Arthur’s bosom. A’ made a finer end and went away ‘ad it had been any christom child; a’ parted even just between twelve and one, even at the turning o’ the tide: for after I saw him fumble with the sheets and play with flowers and smile upon his fingers’ ends, I knew there was but one way; for his nose was as red as a pen, and a’ babbled of green fields. “How now, Sir John! Quoth I; “what, man! Be o’ good cheer.” So a’ cried out “God, God, God!” three or four times. Now I, to comfort him, bid him a’ should not any such thoughts yet. So a’ bade me lay more clothes on his feet: I put my hand into the bed and felt them, and they were as cold as any stone; then I felt his knees, and they were as cold as any stone, and so upward and upward, and all was cold as any stone.” (12)

And from Athens, circa 399 BC:

“Be of good cheer, then, my dear Crito, and say that you are burying my body only, and do with that as is usual, and as you think best. When he had spoken these words, he arose and went into the bath-chamber with Crtio, who bid us wait; and we waited, talking and thinking… of the greatness of our sorrow; he was like a father of whom we were being bereaved, and we were abut to pass the rest of our lives as orphans… Now the hour of sunset was near… Soon the jailer… entered and stood by him, saying: – To you, Socrates, whom I know to be the gentlest and best of all who ever came to this place, I will not impute the angry feelings of other men, who rage and swear at me, when in obedience to the authorities, I bid them drink the poison – indeed, I am sure that you will not be angry with me; for others, as you aware, and not I, are the guilty cause. And so fare you well, and try to bear lightly what must neeeds be; you know my errandl Then bursting into tears he turned away and went out.”

“Socrates looked at him and said: I return your good wishes, and will do as you bid. Then turning to us, he said, How charming the man is: since I have been in prison he has always been coming to see me, and at times he would talk to me, and was as good as could be to me, and now see how generously he sorrows for me. But we must do as he says, Crito; let the cup be brought…You my good friend who are experienced in these matters, shall give directions how I am to proceed. The man answered: You have only to walk about until your legs are heavy, and then to lie down, and the poison will act. At the same time he handed the cup to Socrates… then (Socrates) holding the cup to his lips, quite readily and cheerfully… drank off the poison.”

“And hitherto most of us had been able to control our sorrow; but now when we saw him drinking, and saw too that he had finsihed the draught, we could no longer forbear, and in spite of myself my own tears were flowing fast … Nor was I the first, for Crito, when he found himself unable to restrain his tears, had got up and moved away, and I followed; and at that moment, Apollodorus, who had been weeping all the time broke out into a loud cry which made cowards of us all.”

“Socrates alone retained his calmness… Be quiet then and have patience. When we heard this, we were ashamed, and refrained our tears; and he walked about until… his legs began to fail, and then he lay on his back, according to the directions, and the man who gave the poison now and then looked at his feet and legs; and after awhile he pressed his foot hard, and asked him if he could feel; and he said, No; and then his leg, and so upwards and upwards, and showed us that he was cold and stiff… he said: When the poison reaches the heart, that will be the end. He was beginning to grow cold about the groin, when he uncovered his face… and said ( they were his last words ) – he said: Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt: The debt shall be paid, said Crito; is there anything else? There was no answer to this question; but in a minute or two a movement was heard, and the attendants uncovered him – his eyes were set, and Crito closed his eyes and mouth.”

“Such was the end Echecrates, of our friend, whom I may truly call the wisest, and the justest, and the best of all the men whom I have ever known.”(12)

In an imagined echo we might hear a companion ruefully note: “Would that I were with him, wheresome’er he is …”

 

NOTES:

Phaedo, page 268, Works of Plato, Jowett Translation, Tudor Publishing

The First Part of Henry IV Act V Scene 1, W. Shakespeare

The First Part of Henry IV Act II Scene IV, W. Shakespeare

Henry V Act II Chorus, W. Shakespeare. The fact that the chorus announces the epithet makes it immediately suspect. Its war clamor is far from any such sentiment we find in Shakespeare. If there is any doubt look at Scene III of Act III. You will be hard pressed to find any more horrific war-threat than that which proceeds from the mouth of the Mirror of All Christian Kings.

The Life Of Greece, page 365, W. Durant, Simon & Schuster, NY, 1939

Ibid.

The First Part of Henry IV Act V Scene IV, W. Shakespeare

Henry V Act II Scene II, W.Shakespeare

The Second Part of Henry IV Act III Scene I, W. Shakespeare

King Lear Act IV Scene VI, W. Shakespeare

Henry V Act II Scene III

Phaedo, pages 268-271 Works of Plato, Jowett Translation, Tudor Publishing

OTHELLO: A PASSION PLAY

 In Harold Bloom’s SHAKESPEARE, THE INVENTION OF THE HUMAN, we find:

  … the worship of Shakespeare ought to be even more a secular religion than it already is. … After Jesus, Hamlet is the most cited figure in Western consciousness; no one prays to him, but no one evades him for long either.

 Verdi felt the same conviction for the protagonist of a different play. “Otello” is an opera of dark passion and spiritual sublimity. The librettist / composer, Boito felt daunted by the scale of it. He took his libretto to the retired elder statesman of Italian opera. Only a masterpiece of the highest order could, once again, tempt Verdi to scale the floorboards of La Scala. He knew that only the loftiest of themes and the greatest of his tragic scores would justify a return to the stage. The inclusion of an Ave Maria, not found in Shakespeare, suggests that Verdi and Boito thought the tragedy, as well, a Passion Play.

 There is strong evidence that Shakespeare’s tragedy is a secular reenactment of events that unfolded fifteen centuries before he again took up the theme.  Nietszche said that there was only one Christian — and that he died on the cross.  One needs not be Christian to be moved by the Christian myth or to use it as a subtext in one’s art.

 In the year of Shakespeare’s birth, Michelangelo died while working on the marble of his final masterpiece – the Rondindini Pieta. With it he pared away the final months of his life and, as well, any hint of musculature and flesh on the bodies of Mary and the dead Christ. The Rondindini Pieta is a valediction to his art and life. He had sculpted the quintessence of spirit from the intransigence of stone – and then he died.

 By stressing the purity of Desdemona’s spirit over the confused exigencies of Othello’s flesh, Shakespeare, as well, sculpted an essence as pure as that which the sculptor had earlier hewn from the stone.  Desdemona is the most completely spiritual character that the poet would ever pen. She is a counterpart to Michelangelo’s pieta – but here Shakespeare accomplishes the double miracle of implying the divinely sensual Desdemona to be both the mother of God and the sacrificed son, lovingly cradled in her arms.

 Shakespeare’s “negative capability,” (his ability to disappear within the consciousness of his characters) makes any inference as to his own beliefs a dubious enterprise.  However, the sentiments of Shakespeare’s clowns do, in the very least, offer ironic commentary on facets of his drama.

 At the beginning of Act III we have such a clown.*. It is not off-point to see, at the first, he speaks the merest burlesque. He disdains a musician’s art as: “wind instruments that speak to the nose.” Yet, in a masterpiece of this magnitude we should be suspect of any passage found by the critics to be of “little consequence.”

 Othello has sent the clown to dismiss the musicians:

Clown:   But, masters, here’s money for you; and the general so likes your music that he desires you, for love’s sake, to make no more noise with it.

Musician:  Well, sir, we will not.

Clown: If you have any music that may not be heard, to’t again.  But, as they say, to hear the music,  the general does not really care.

Musician: We have none such, sir.

Clown: Then put up your pipes… for I’ll away. Go vanish into air, away!

 If we follow the hint of a   “music that may not be heard,” we need look no further to the harmony which Othello is thwarted from enjoying — the music of Desdemona. Shakespeare takes pains to keep the action at a frenzied “unconsummated’ sexual pitch. This ratchets up the tension but, as well, brings to mind the unconsummated union of Mary and Joseph, as related in the Gospels.

 Other hints are scattered throughout the text. The first (and not the least telling) is the first word that Iago utters: “’Sblood.”  Taken from Iago, simply an expletive tossed off to Roderigo, but from the lexicon of the Elizabethan, ‘sblood is a contraction of “God’s blood.”

 Where might the trail of God’s blood lead us in a drama about the murder of innocence?  Most readers of the play believe Desdemona to be killed by suffocation – either strangulation or beneath a pillow.  But within a line of the stage direction: “He smothers her,” we have Othello asking three questions.

          What noise is this? Not dead? Not quite dead?

And,

I that am cruel am yet merciful. I would not have thee linger in thy pain. So, so.

 How he attempts to end her pain, in the interval of that “So, so,” is the point of conjecture. Goddard believes he stabs her with the same instrument with which he ends his own life. For purposes of these reflections I ask the reader to remember another solider, a Centurion who pierced the side of a fabled innocent nailed upon plank before him. For if Christ takes the sins of the world upon himself in Gethsemane , so, as well, does Desdemonda, upon her deathbed.

  In answer to Emilia’s impassioned query,

 “Who hath done this deed?”

 Desdemonda responds,

“Nobody – I myself. “

And as Christ concludes his agony with:

 “Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit,”

 so also,  Desdemona concludes her own with,

 “Commend me to my kind lord. O, farewell.”

 The stage direction: [She dies.], follows immediately. God’s blood, indeed.

 Othello’s own judgment, of her murder, is usually read from the Quarto,

 “One whose hand, like the base Indian, threw a pearl away richer than his tribe.”

  But the folio reading is,

 “One whose hand, like the base Judean, threw a pearl away richer than his tribe.”

 This allusion to Judas, taken with: “I kissed thee ere I killed thee,” is as exact a parallel to a subtext as any found in Shakespeare. The play is, of course, larger than any schemata attempting to elucidate its mysteries. But Shakespeare, more than any major writer, was drawn to the mystery of consciousness and so became a master of it.  He knew that there was nothing good nor bad but thinking makes it so – yet Macbeth sups full of horrors. Ghosts, witches and portents are restive in the wings and at any moment the wild mares of night might trample forth from gapping fissures found in earth or mind. Hamlet ponders the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns. Falstaff babbles of green fields as death climbs from foot to knee to thigh, and the doctor in Macbeth remarks that Lady Macbeth’s inability to wash the blood from her hands needs “more the divine than the physician.” These beliefs belong to their characters, they are the manifest of their consciousness.

 Of what consciousness did Shakespeare imbue Desdemona? Speaking of her, after relating tales of his adventures, Othello says

 “She wished heaven had made her such a man.”

  It is only when we remember that Shakespeare delights in commingling the sexes (of his more highly evolved characters) that the second meaning of her wish emerges.

 “She wished heaven had made her such a man.”

 This under-meaning is thrown in greater relief by Othello’s exclamation, greeting her upon arrival from the storm:

 “O my fair warrior!”

  Each speaks to an otherworldly strength, as much beyond gender as Christ was believed to be beyond mortality. The correspondence between the one tale and the other is purely allusive, but its cumulative effect grows with each reading. It might seem a stretch to suggest that Desdemona’s “Nobody, I myself” is shorthand for Christ’s atonement.

We are prepared for this alignment at an earlier juncture in the text. In Act 4 Scene 1

 Desdemona speaks of her desire to reconcile Othello with Cassio:

 “I would do much T’atone them.”

Over hearing this, Othello rages atonement’s exact opposite:

“Fire and brimstone!”

 He then calls her a devil and  strikes her to the floor and repeats the charge:

 “O Devil, Devil!”

 Act 4 Scene 2 is one of the most psychologically devastating in the world’s literature. In it, as he does in the 3rd act of the opera, Othello considers his wife’s claim of innocence:

” Is it possible?”

 Desdemona grasps at the hope inherent in his seeming doubt of  infidelity has proclaimed.  She exclaims,

 “O heaven, forgive us!”

She then melts before the prospect of their reconciliation. In his,

 ” I cry you, mercy then.”

 Desdemona believes that heaven has granted light to their love’s renewal. But it was a feint and a false hope. The complete line reads:

 “I cry you mercy then, I took you for the cunning whore of Venice ,

   that married with Othello.”

  He then tosses coins in her face as payment for the pleasures he imagines she shared with Cassio. In the episode that follows Shakespeare explores another of his psychological reversals. Desdemona unknowingly, summons the one person responsible for her misfortunes. At the nadir of her consciousness she confronts Shakespeare’s greatest villain at the absolute height of his – she summons Iago. The ever-voluble Iago is, here, near speechless in the face of her beauty and pain.  Far from being a whore, she can not even speak the word.  She asks Iago: “Am I that name?”

 The “good” incapable of utterance and “evil” rendered mute by the purity of its flame. It is a prelude of his final silence. The defeat of the Turbaned Turk begins here.  In the face of this “fair warrior” he can barely link words together in a phrase: “What is the matter, lady?” and “What name, fair lady?’  His, “Do not weep, do not weep,” suggests something of her affect upon him. She calls him “good friend” and kneels before him as Christ had knelt before Pilate.

 And when Emilia proclaims some cozening slave, to get office, has devised the slanders under which she suffers, Desdemona replies: “If any such there be, heaven pardon him.” Only onCalgary do we find anything of its equal. And only in a desert temptation do we find the equal of Desdemona’s

 “Beshrew me if I should do such a wrong for the whole world.”

That is her strength and the world’s hope.  The Roman Empire learned that of Christ. The British Empire learned it of Gandhi. The reader learns it again, of Desdemona at the end of Act 4 as she concludes:

 “Good night, good night. Heaven me, such uses send, not to pick bad from bad but by bad mend.”

 In Act 5, Othello pronounces Desdemona to be on her deathbed, her  “banish me, my lord, but kill me not,” echoes the  “Father, let this cup pass from my lips” of the Gospels. Othello confirms her fate, “Thou art to die.” Desdemona replies: “Then Lord have mercy on me.”  And Othello concludes:   “I say amen.”  In those three words Othello has usurped heaven and found himself at the center of Dante’s frozen hell. The “I say amen” is also the Christian God confirming that the cup shall not pass from the lips of the anointed one. Othello tells Desdemona that her death is not a murder, but a sacrifice.

 Near the end of Act 4 Scene 3, Desdemona speaks again of atonement. If we remember that atonement means “at one ment,” that through God’s grace, mental separateness, which is the prerogative of passion and sin, is resolved in the “at one ment” of Divine union, we shouldn’t be surprise to hear Desdemona declare, in the final hour of her life:

 “All’s one. Good Father how foolish are our minds. “

 And then to Emilia,

“If I do die before, prithee, shroud me in these same sheets. “

 Here Shakespeare and Verdi follow with the pathos and resignation of the “Willow Song.” Following it, Verdi provides the prayer that Othello only inquires about in the play: “Hath thou prayed tonight?” Desdemona’s,  “Ay, my Lord” precedes her murder.

 In the opera, however, Verdi desires that we hear the music that “may not be heard,” requested by the clown in Act 3.  Mayhaps, had Othello heard Desdemona’s transcendental prayer, his “I say amen,” might have been the benediction to a far different play. Here now, is Susana Montal’s performance of “Ave Maria,” from Verdi’s “Otello.”

Ave Maria

* I am indebted to Professor Harold C. Goddard for directing my thoughts to the deserving, though much neglected, clown of the third act. We differ in the direction the unheard music leads us, but his reading of Shakespeare remains one of the most humane and provocative of the last century.

 

HISTORY OF THE BIBLE

The power of any great work is in its ability to speak to diverse souls and times. This is further confirmed when it successfully crosses the boundaries of the language within which it was conceived. If its impact outlasts next Sunday’s op-ed page – we can comfortably suggest the human poetic. Among the most problematical works of this type is a tangled text of myth, malice, and mystery to which we’ll now direct our attention. Although we might have mislaid our bedside copy it patiently awaits our perusal at any Motel 6. Yes, this text – (courtesy of the Gideons who delivered it, the fevered prophets who composed it, the patient priests who compiled it, and the multitudes who died for it) is, in the profoundest of understatements, the Bible.

Its wonder has been greatly reduced by Sunday morning platitudes that discourage individual discovery. This is a lamentation that we might add to Jeremiah’s collection and conclude with the preacher of Ecclesiastes that “all is vanity and chasing after wind.” That its most vocal proponents claim it to be the exclusive word of God is certainly enough to set one off one’s morning tea. One suspects that deity has, on occasion, visited elsewhere in the literature the world deems Scripture. There seems to be, as well, some evidence of man’s manipulation of a line or two of the holy text. That aside, whether by guile or God the Bible is among the most sublime imaginings to grace the mind of man.

Judeo-Christian tradition has held tenaciously (for twenty centuries) to the belief that the initial scribe of the Torah (what Christians call the Pentateuch) was the prophet Moses. Most of the first five books were complied in the century of Aristotle. That a variety of writers were involved might make us suspect that deity was better served by committee than by a voice crying in the wilderness.

Many are the chefs contributing to the canon’s rich broth. The ‘opening up’ of the Bible has been to its benefit and to the world’s heritage of Scripture. In the 11th century Issac ibn Yasush noticed that a list of Edomite kings in Genesis 36 included many who had lived long after the time of Moses. By not appreciating the prophet’s prescience, Issac was termed “Issac the blunderer” by lbn Ezra in the 12th century. Ibn himself had wondered why Moses had spoken, on occasion, in the third person (as if some other hand had been transcribing his words) and how it was that he spoke, as well, of places he never could have been. His advice to silence on questions of this ilk was followed until the 14th century. Bonfils suggested that a portion of the divine writings of Moses must have been by other hands. That these other hands were divinely inspired was not enough for his reflections to avoid being subsequently deleted from later additions of his work.

In the 15th century it occurred to Tostatus, the Bishop of Avila that an argument might be made for Moses not recording the advent of his own death. In the following century Andreas van Maes concluded that there must have been subsequent interpolations to the words of Moses. Thereafter, he found his own words placed upon the Catholic list of condemned books. It isn’t until the 17th century that the preceding suspicion of the last six is stated categorically by Hobbes: Moses did not write any of the books that had long been attributed to his name.

Spinoza submitted a more thorough analysis. In spite of his benevolence the 17th century proved less than appreciative:

“Spinoza is the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers. Intellectually, some others have surpassed him, but ethically he is supreme. As a natural consequence, he was considered, during his lifetime and for a century after his death, a man of appalling wickedness.” (1)

Given a personal humility that bespoke little of his own towering genius, he had a mild difficulty with Moses’ own report of being the humblest man on earth. It seemed to Spinoza that the report might have come from someone other than the world’s most humble man. Add to this the appraisal in Deuteronomy, “that to this day there has not appeared as great a prophet.” (2) One might suppose, along with the Dutch Jew, that the day in reference was one in which the greatness of Moses had become a revered memory. Spinoza’s analysis led, in part, to his expulsion from Judaism, the ranting anathema of the Christians and a subsequent attempt on his life.

On occasion (in our dreams) we think of a canvas that the world has never seen. It is of a Jew (of Rembrandt’s many Jews) suggesting Christ (among his many Christs). From the quiet of chiaroscuro, Spinoza arises from the depths that the artist has left us in the shadowed self-portraits of his own broken soul.

It is one of the unintended burdens of the Bible that it has been used as an excuse for murder in each of the more than twenty centuries it has companioned. Speaking of this sentiment Joseph Campbell quotes the Psalms: “The fool in his heart says ‘there is no God.’” Campbell further dilates: “There is, however, another type of fool, more dangerous and sure of himself, who says in his heart and proclaims for all the world, ‘There is no God but mine.’” (3)

In the 17th century Richard Simon, a Catholic priest contended against Hobbes and Spinoza. He blamed Biblical irregularity on the ineptitude of scribes recording the words of Moses. For suggesting that any of the first five books was by a hand other than Moses he was dismissed from his order and his books burned.

The cat, however, was continuing to jump out of the bag. In the 18th century numerous authors were pouring over the Bible’s text in the warmer climes of the enlightenment. Voltaire and the Encyclopediasts were confronting what they termed L’infame – the power of the church to blight the minds of men. Early in the 19th century scholars isolated four different writers speaking with voices centuries after the Mosaic attribution.

Lest one fears we are treading on hallowed ground it might do well to point out that the Catholic church issued a writ in 1943, assuring researchers that they were no longer in danger of the stake for pursuing their course of study. (4) Which is to say that it might be considered judicious to ride in the caboose to avoid being run over by the train. The Pope was Pius Xli and his words were as follows:

 

“Let the interpreter then, with all care and without neglecting any light derived from recent research endeavor to determine the peculiar character and circumstances of the sacred writer, the age in which he lived, the sources written or oral to which he had recourse and the forms of expression he employed.”

 

In reading the King James Version of the Bible we have the luck that the translators employed were within a generation of the Elizabethan age. Some might have known the mellifluence of Shakespeare from the Bard himself. The use of the words God and Lord to our eye and ear seem to bespeak the same character. We use the two interchangeably. They are, in fact, representative of two distinct personalities. In the original Hebrew texts we find that “Lord” or “Lord God” has been translated from YHWH, or JHVH – the Tetragrammaton, the mysterious unutterable name of God.

The third commandment’s injunction to never take his name in vain was to the orthodox a commandment to never speak it at all. Rabbinical authorities felt more at home with the substitute name of Adonai, (My Lord). Its vowels, (a,o,a) were often placed above the sacred consonants and later interpolated into them. When the faithful did speak this hybrid they got it wrong and pronounced it Jehovah. Now (to the dismay of the Jehovah’s Witness) it is thought that Yahweh is closer to the pronunciation of the unutterable. This is the name of God as he might be listed in the yellow pages as George Yahweh or Yahweh Jones. Yahweh is not alone among the gods – he is simply the head honcho – one must take care to place none-other before him. It is acknowledged that Baal and Moloch are entities of equal realitybut of a lesser order. Yahweh is ascendant over these other gods but no less anthropomorphic.

Yahweh is decidedly a tribal deity. In animating Adam he breathes life into his lungs, as in artificial respiration. When Noah offers up some tastey barbecue Yahweh confesses that the sacrifice is pleasing to his nostrils. He further admits to petulance and jealousy. At times he regrets the hard time he visits on his creation. We find him lamenting the evil he has done – as if he had overstepped the boundaries of a proper rage.

The term for which we derive God in Hebrew is Elohim. Elohim is the plural of El – a pagan deity from the Caananite portion of Northern Palestine. As Elohim he was thought to be more than a god of single attribute, such as Haddu, god of the wind. He is a further reaching archetypal than a god with a personal name. This places him at a later stage of development than his Biblical counterpart to the South. As Elohim he starts the monotheistic process of absorbing competing pantheons in the region. He begins to grow closer to the ultimate ground of being that the Bible, at its best, moves us toward. The Indian sages of the Upanishads were at work in this same era. The Bible’s most profound influence in Western Philosophy is found in the writings of Spinoza. This alone should give us a hint as to the profundity that an open reading of the canon might confer.

The writers of the Upanishads saw the fall as an ontological event that was not precipitated by God’s creation but as a natural evolution of the One that would become the Many. For the Rishis, redemption was the psychological apprehension of the immanence of God within one’s self; an awareness only connected with the history of each individual life as it was lived. We are each strangers in a strange land. It is only from the vantage of a holy mountain or perhaps when sitting down and near a master deep in a forest glen that we discover that we have only been estranged from ourselves.

The stern white bearded father is an image that many are loath to relinquish. Much that is colorful and human in the canon comes from the closeness with which we can identify with Yahweh’s human tendencies. The meditations of Spinoza and the Hindu tendencies within us acknowledge the worth, the meaning, and the placement of any of creation’s beings. Man is not seen as the culmination of God’s efforts but simply as another manifestation of his immanence. The Christian focus on the drama of the fall highlights the distance between man and his God. By believing the event to be historical the church was forced to envision the redemption as being enacted in a subsequent stage of the world’s history. The Jews share this obsession with historicity but believe that redemption was achieved on Sinai and not on the cross

Simon, to his regret, was among the first to point out that Moses was using two different names for a single deity. That they were from differing consciousness, as well, became increasingly apparent to those investigators who were hearing very different voices behind the two names. The basis for this realization is in the repetition of similar stories. We are more familiar with this movement in synoptic repetitions in the New Testament. The belief that Moses was the only writer of the first five books blinded its readers to the diverse minds that contributed to its creation.

We call these repetitions doublets and on occasion triplets. The doublets were first recognized in the repetition of the Yahweh and Elohim formulations. At the end of the 18th century the Elohim text was discovered to have doublets of its own. These evinced matters of ritual, law, sacrifice and diet each of particular interest to priests The priestly document repeats stories common to both texts and is the largest contributor to the Pentateuch. It can be found throughout Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers. Its unquestioned highlight is the “In the beginning…” text that was selected to begin the whole she-bang. We can view a doublet by reading the first two chapters of Genesis. In chapter one Elohim is substituted for God. In chapter two the original YHWH or Yahweh does like service for Lord God.

Genesis, 1: “In the beginning Elohim created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of Elohimmoved upon the face of the waters. And Elohim said “let there be light” and there was light. And Elohim saw the light, that it was good: and Elohim divided the light from the darkness. AndElohim called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.”

Genesis, 2: “In the day that Yahweh made the earth and the heavens, and every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew, for Yahweh had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground, there went up a mist from the earth and watered the whole face of the ground. And the Yahweh formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

It is not difficult to see why the later Elohim document was placed in the first chapter of Genesis and the earlier Yahweh text placed in the 2nd. When the Apollo astronauts first orbited the moon they continued with the majesty of the King James rendition of the Elohim text: And God (Elohim) said: “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.” And God (Elohim) made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. And God (Elohim) called the firmament heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.” That the text could move millions listening from a radio broadcast from the moon is testament to it continuing power. The primal substance of the universe is thought to be a cosmic ocean inundating both heaven and earth, for the earth was void and the darkness of this primordial deep had to await the stirring of spirit upon the face of the waters.

This last is a borrowing from Marduk’s creation saga. Rain is thought to fall from rivers in the sky. The same concept of the cosmic ocean appears in the Hindu notion of Vishnu reclining on the surface of a cosmic sea and dreaming the multiplicity of forms that Elohim precipitates with his division of light from the dark.

In the Elohim text there is no story of a fall such as we find in Genesis 2, where “…Yahweh planted a garden eastward in Eden.” The fall in Elohim is the fall of Elohim. He rents the fabric of consciousness in the division of light from dark. Brahma (in the dream of Vishnu) performs a similar feat in each blink of his cosmic eye.

Three separate inquiries in the 18th century (unbeknownst to each other) wrote of the integrity of these disparate sources. Henning Bernhard Witter’s efforts of 1711 weren’t acknowledged until two centuries after his death. In 1753, Jean Astruc (a court physician to the Louis the XIV) published his findings anonymously in Paris at the age of 70. His musing, along with Witter’s, went largely unnoticed. The world took little notice until Johann Gottfried Eichhorn (the son of a pastor and a scholar of respected credentials) arrived at the same conclusions. They noticed in 1780 when Johann published his work. As they accustomed themselves to the possibility of two hands being involved it was discovered that the Elohim stories had doublets, as well.

Moses had become the writers J (which in German is pronounced like Y, for the

Yahweh scribe), E for the Elohim scribe and P for the priestly scribes. Each of these writers compiled their histories after the death of Solomon and the subsequent partition of the land between his two sons. J hailed from Rehoboam’s Judah. He showed a political preference for that kingdom and priests that could trace their authority to the high priest, Aaron.

E was from Jeroboam’s Israel. He, not surprisingly, shows Israel in a more favorable light. He also prefers the Mushite priest who trace their authority through the lineage of Moses. P was aware of both these sources. He expands E’s deity to cosmic proportions but agrees with J that the Aaronite priests are the only fit intermediaries. J, E, and P held their ground as distinct entities – each employing vocabulary; idiom, and concerns that bespoke their own respective voices. The fly in the Biblical ointment showed up in the last of the books that Moses was seen to have no longer penned. In it, there was little to be seen of J, E, or P. Deuteronomy was as distinct from the others as they were from themselves – enter D. In Germany, early in the 19th century, W.M.L. DeWette concluded that none of the earlier source material continued in this book.

Deuteronomy was written during the reign of King Josiah in the 7th century, BC. It was proclaimed to be an ancient text written by Moses. It contained a restatement of the Decalogue and an account of the death of Moses.. Its intent was to reestablish the power and authority of the Mushite priests. It also solemnized and assured the rule of King Josiah. In its original presentation it included the subsequent narratives of Joshua, Judges, Samuel 1 & 2 and Kings 1 & 2 down to the celebration of Josiah’s reign. An Egyptian Arrow felled the King and prematurely concluded the festivities. Twenty-two years and four kings later in 587 BC, the Davidic Dynasty, one of History’s most enduring, comes to an inglorious end. Nebuchadnezzar murders the children of King Zedekiah and then, grimly anticipating Shakespeare’s Goneril, plucks out the eyes of the protesting King. Thereafter God’s chosen are exiled by the waters of Babylon, where in remembering Zion, they sat down and wept.

And lest D might feel like the odd man out he was shortly to be accompanied by a fifth voice. Of those we’ve made mention, he is, perhaps, the most interesting. Had he not written 900 years after Moses it is to his shoulder that authorship might be said to fall. We don’t know if he was a single genius or like the translators of King James the genius of a committee. But whoever he or they were took these disparate strands – cut, pasted and beautifully wove them into a tapestry that has enthralled the western world for well over two thousand years. In the 19th century the contributions of Karl Heinrich Graf. and Wilheim Vatke were synthesized in the work of Julius Wellhausen. These three, together with their historical precedents, might be said to constitute the fathers of the “Documentary Hypothesis.”

Among many that profess a love for the Bible is an understanding of its history that is somewhere on the far side of nebulous. And even among those who actually take the time to read it there is little comprehension of it having a history outside the mind of God. The J document was written in the 9th century BC in the southern kingdom of Judah. The E document in the 8th century BC in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The P document in the latter part of the 8th century BC or early in the 7th. The D document before the death of Josiah in 609 BC. The Jews had canonized the first five books by the middle of the 5th century preceding Christ.

J, E, D, P and the editor’s efforts of synthesis march sequentially down the centuries from the 9th to the 5th. The poetic books of Proverbs, Psalms, and Job were written in the 4th century. The writings of the prophets were canonized at the end of the 3rd century. 1st and 2nd Maccabees were written in the 2nd century. From Solomon in the 10th century to Caesar in the 1st we’ve connected a near unbroken strand that concludes with the birth of Christ in Anno Domanai or if you prefer the final canonization at Jamnia.

What Christians declare to be the “Old Testament” the Jews call the Tanakh. This is an acronym for the principle designations in the Jewish Canon. The T, N, K of Torah, Neviim, and Kethuvim i.e. The Books of Moses, The Prophetical writings and the miscellanies and chronicles that comprise the rest of the collection. For the Jews these sacred writings are not the Old Testament, but rather The Testament.

Once we have gotten a handle on the accepted scholarly mythology of the book’s origin, we are welcome to explore the thornier problem of the history it reports. If we free ourselves from the necessity of connecting the reports of history to anything historical, then that which we deem the province of the past can be more readily utilized in the reality of the present.

History so read places the birth of Dionysus (from the stomach of Zeus) on equal footing with the virgin birth of Christ. When we cease to believe the present has necessarily been preceded by the past we are approaching something of the lyric in our paradigm – something of the music in Eliot’s Four Quartets:

“Words move, music moves / Only in time; but that which is only living / Can only die. Words, after speech / reach into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern, / Can words or music reach / The stillness, as a Chinese jar still / Moves perpetually in its stillness. / Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts, / Not that only, but the co-existence, / Or say that the end precedes the beginning, / And the end and the beginning were always there / Before the beginning and after the end. / And all is always now. (6)

At such a juncture it is the light of our own consciousness that divides the light from the darkness. It is at our own behest that a firmament is raised in the midst of the waters. Our recognition of this will not be on the second day but rather, the first. Approaching that Sinai, Cross or Bo-tree is a path of significance that needs no signpost. We undertake journeys to destinations that have already claimed us in arrival.

PASTEBOARD MASKS: THE BOOK OF JOB

The Book of Job is a play removed from the historical agenda of the Jews. Job is not a Jew but rather from the land of Uz. This device allows the author to address the caprices of God and not deprive himself of an audience, or (more to the point) engage one heavy with stones. The prologue acquaints us with Job’s piety, his assets and family. During a sacred oblation the scene shifts to Heaven. Satan drops by for a chat. God sets the plot in motion: “Hath thou considered my servant Job? For there is none like him on the Earth – a perfect and upright man.” Satan takes the bait. He suggests, Job appears saintly because God has put a protective hedge about him. God demurs but allows Satan to take his best shot: “Behold all that he hath is in thy power.” Life becomes more difficult for the unsuspecting Uzzite. Marauding Chaldeans slaughter most of his herds and herdsmen. Job is thankful for the shepherds and sheep that were spared. A fire falls from the sky consuming them each. He takes solace in his family. His sons are killed in the collapse of his brother’s house. Job is stoical: “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb and naked shall I return thither: The Lord gave, and the Lord taketh away; Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

 Thereafter, Job (who possesses the patience of Job) is barnacled with boils yet persists in his faith that nothing is unnaturally amiss. His wife attempts to keep things in perspective. After a careful study of their dilemma she concludes that he should: “Renounce God, and die.” (6) Job remains steadfast for an additional seven days. On the eighth, his fabled patience flags:

 “Let the day perish wherein I was born, And the night which said, There is a man child conceived. Let that day be darkness… because it shut not up the doors of my mother’s womb.” (8)

 This is less than an affirmation of God’s glory. His neighbors suggest that he has brought God’s wrath upon himself: “Remember, I pray thee, who ever perished being innocent?” (9) It is a question put in the mouth of his friend, Eliphaz.

 It is also addressed to any one who has ever considered the presence of evil in God’s creation. The polemic presented in Job nips any apology of free will in the bud – Job’s innocence is unqualified. The thesis of his undeserved suffering is one of the great deliberations in the world of letters. The Brothers Karamazov is another:

 The chapter is called Rebellion and immediately proceeds the celebrated Grand Inquisitor. Ivan and his brother, the priest Alyosha, are meditating on the metaphysics of murder: “… the peculiar… love of torturing children and only children. An eight year old boy has injured one of his master’s hounds, the General orders the child; whereupon the following morning: “The child is brought from the lock-up. It is a gloomy, cold, foggy autumn day, a capital day for hunting. The general orders the child to be undressed; the child is stripped naked. He shivers, numb with terror, not daring to make a peep… ‘Make him run,’ commands the general. ‘Run! run!’ shout the outriders. The boy runs… ‘At him!’ yells the general, and he sets the whole pack of hounds on the child. The hounds catch him, tear him to pieces before his mother’s eyes! I believe the general was afterwards declared incapable of administering his estates. Well—what did he deserve? To be shot? To be shot for the satisfaction of our moral feelings? Speak, Alyosha!”

 “To be shot” murmured Alyosha, lifting his eyes to Ivan with a pale twisted smile.” “Bravo!” cried Ivan, delighted. “If even you say so… You’re a pretty monk! So there is a little devil sitting in your heart, Alyosha Karamazov! …Tell me yourself, I challenge—answer. Imagine that you are erecting the edifice of human destiny with the object of making men happy at last, giving them peace and rest at last, but that to this end it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature—that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance — and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and do not lie.”

“No, I wouldn’t consent,” said Alyosha softly. (1O)

 Elipaz might respond: “Shall mortal man be more just than God? Shall a man be more pure than his maker?” (11) To which the examples of Alyosha and Job might give us pause in our alacrity of answer.

 Each of Job’s neighbors argues the rightness of God’s designs: “Behold, happy is the man that God correcteth … doth the almighty pervert Justice?” Job turns the question around: “But how can a man be just with God? Though I be righteous, mine own mouth shall condemn me… The earth is given to the hands of the wicked… The tents of the robbers prosper… They that provoke God are secure… He coverth the faces of the Judges, thereof. – if it be not he, then who is it?…”

 These are among the most probing questions ever addressed to Deity. If Babylon and Buchenwald are ends forseen, why create a people and to such destinies consign?

 “I should have been as though I had not been. I should have been carried from the womb to the grave… even to the land of darkness, as darkness itself. A land of the shadow of death, without any order and where the light is the darkness.”

 We may prodigiously search the world’s religious literature – nowhere will we find a greater indictment of God than is found within the pages of his own sacred text. Legions of the Bible’s children have fled its counsel to the wisdom of Eastern climes. It is ironic that, in the Book of Job, Yahweh turns out to be as crafty as a Zen master – his answers as inwardly illuminating as an Oriental conundrum. In the 4th part of the drama, Yahweh addresses Job, not from the terra firma of man’s rational understanding, but as a voice from the center of his mental cyclone – theVoice from the Whirlwind:

 “Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?”

 This is the first question of God’s cross-examination. He further queries:

“Where wast thou. when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if thou has understanding… Who shut up the sea with doors when it broke forth, as if it issued out of the womb? Hast thou entered into the springs of the sea? Hast thou walked in the recesses of the deep? Have the gates of death been revealed unto thee… Hast thou comprehended the breadth of the earth… or laid a line on it? Declare, if thou knowest it all” (17)

Job can no more rationally answer the whirlwind than Yahweh could logically answer Job. The beauty of each inability is only appreciated by a sensibility that requires neither pole to suitably frame an answer. In Equus. the patient, Alan Strang, creates a pagan religion, in part, from the whirlwind’s evocation of animal strength: “Hast thou given the horse his might? The glory of his snorting is terrible. He swalloweth the ground with fierceness and rage…”

The investigating psychiatrist is Dr. Dysart:

 “A child is born into a world of phenomena all equal in their power to enslave. It sniffs—it sucks–it strokes its eyes over the whole uncomfortable range. Suddenly one strikes. Why? Moments snap together like magnets, forging a chain of shackles. Why? I can trace them. I can even, with time, pull them apart again. But why at the start they were ever magnetized at all–I don’t know. And nor does anyone else. Yet if I don’t know—if I can never know that—then what am I doing here? I don’t mean clinically doing or socially doing—I mean fundamentally! These questions, these Whys, are fundamental—yet they have no place in a consulting room. So then, do I? This is the feeling more and more with me–No Place. Displacement.” (21)

 Dysart might have equally asked, Canst thou bind the cluster of the Pleiades or loose the bands of Orion? Canst thou draw Leviathan with a fishhook? Or press down his tongue with a cord? Canst thou put a rope into his nose? … Canst thou fill his skin with barbed irons, or his head with fish spears? (22)

 These questions undoubtedly occurred to Melville and through him to Ahab of the Pequod: “All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed–there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If a man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ‘tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me, I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principle, I will wreak that hate upon him.” (23)

 For Yahweh, Leviathan, and even, in the end, the mad passion that drives Ahab, inscrutability is precisely the point. To cleave the flesh of the deep is to seek to know a face whose light few in our century have been prepared or have desired to see. When Oppenheimer witnessed the first glow of the atomic dawn he recalled the Bhagavad Gita, “I have become death, the destroyer of worlds.” The voice from the whirlwind could have supplied him with as apt a metaphor: “And his eyes are like the eyelids of the morning. Out of his nostrils a smoke goeth, As of a seething pot and burning rushes. His breath kindleth coals, and a flame goeth forth from his mouth. He maketh the deep to boil like a pot. He maketh a path to shine after him; One would think the deep to be hoary. Upon earth there is not his like, that is made without fear.’

 From Leviathan to the atom is something of the depth we have sought to probe. Man who engages eternity at every moment is, in the end, as inscrutable to himself as he is to his God. The Glory of God is ambrosia for which even the palette of Moses was unprepared. To taste thereof would have made him a god. We were sent forth from a garden with knowledge contending God’s evil against God’s good. The sword that keeps us hence we hold within the hollow of our hand:

 “Then Moses said, Now show me your glory. And the Lord said, I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. But you cannot see my face, for no one may see my face and live. Then the Lord said, There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face you must not see.” (27)

 When Oppenheimer became death, the destroyer of worlds, he had seen, like Moses, half the mystery. To understand that the face of God is a gleaming mirror is a revelation for those who needn’t fear the face they find within.

 

ECCLESIASTES AND ISAIAH

The Book of Job poised the certainties of good and evil on the edge of a moral abyss. The writer of Ecclesiates took personal delight in spinning those certainties into the nothingness he saw yawning before us all. The Preacher’s diatribe would have to await the more cynical meditations of the 20th century to find something of its equal.

Incentives and prohibitions facilitate social order and the dictates of law. World events can force revision of contracts formerly held… The questions of Job were posed by Jews who believe the punishment of their exile incommensurate with their sins. Ecclesiastes formulated an answer that denied the validity of the question. The writings of 2nd Isaiah embraced the question in a heretofore-unsuspected way.

The exilic Isaiah knew that the covenants had lost their force of contract. A warrior-god only makes sense when the victory of his warriors is a possibility. The Assyrians, Babylonians and now the hordes of Cyrus, had done much to deflate the realistic pretensions of the Lord of Hosts and his chosen people. What had been seen formerly as defeat in consequence of sin was now metamorphosed into an offering of sacrifice. God now consoles his people for their suffering. Yahweh was now to become a God of loving-kindness. He admonishes with compassion. He is loath to raise his sword. Israel was to bear the sins of the world in much the same way another Jew would shoulder that same imponderable weight. Fear of God is replaced by love of God and the same vastness of imagery employed in Job to affirm unbridgeable gulfs is utilized to close dimensional chasms. The Promised Land becomes internalized. Sovereignty of soul more important than that of nation.

“Behold, the nations are as a drop of a bucket, And are counted as the small dust of the balance: AIl nations before him are as nothing; And they are counted to him less than nothing, and vanity… And the whirlwind shall take them away as stubble.” (9)

The whirlwind of Job and the vanity of Ecclesiastes are synthesized in what is the Bible’s loftiest depiction of an ever-evolving God. In Isaiah he has come off the heights of Sinai to burn in the secret places of man’s heart: The heretofore, heavy weight of sin need not await a crucifixion to mitigate its burden:

“0 Israel, thou shalt not be forgotten of me. I have blotted out, as a thick cloud, thy transgressions, And as a cloud, thy sins: Return unto me; for I have redeemed thee (11)

This same love that a defeated Israel could quietly savor is the legacy that Christ would extend to the defeated and meek of the earth. The world first receives his message in 2nd Isaiah 5 centuries before his birth. The Persian duality of good and evil is of little note to a God who take responsibility for them both

“I am the Lord, and there is none else… .I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.” (12)

The imagery that Christianity would deploy in depicting its savior is prefigured by the prophet to embody the suffering of his chosen people for the enlightenment of all mankind. In 2nd Isaiah, the nourishment and sacrifice of those that follow God’s word is given poignancy that only the suffering of a lowly carpenter will come close to rival:

“He is despised and rejected of men; A man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: And with his stripes we are healed… He was numbered with the transgressors; And he bore the sin of many.”

The redemption and sacrifice of the Jews is the redemption of their God. What earlier had been a demand of obedience from a jealous god has been transformed into a sacrifice of love, from man to god and god to man. (15)

 “Thy sun shall no more go down, Neither shall thy moon withdraw itself: For the Lord shall be thine everlasting light, And the days of thy mourning shall be ended.” (16)

The good and evil that God accepts as his own is reflected in the manner that his people have regarded him down the many centuries of which they make record. If the morals of his people demanded that their god be as unmerciful as they themselves are depicted in the Book of Judges, then their god would accommodate this desire with a sharpness of word that would desolate the worlds with which it came in conflict.

If in the course of our own development we can approach the vision of 2nd Isaiah, then perhaps, what has been seen as a story of one people can be viewed as a metaphor for all. In the end, if we can “preach good tidings unto the meek” and “bind up the brokenhearted,” we might find within our own hearts the strength to forgive he from whom we seek forgiveness. We might come to understand that the record of the Bible is more a measure of our own shortcomings than it is a judgment of a fearful god. If we can come to say of the Father, what he came to say of his children:

“Surely they are my people, Children that will not lie… In all their affliction he was afflicted, And the angel of his presence saved them: In his love and in his pity he redeemed them; And he bore them, and carried them all the days of old;” (17)

then perhaps, what was once an ancient voice whose words have lost their meaning, will live again for those whose hearts will claim the old as if anew.

THE EYES OF DEATH

Consciousness is always in a state of full disclosure no matter how diminutive it appears disguised. The meaning of this amplitude is only approached when the magnitude of its ground is plumbed and finally fathomed. This ‘ground’ is an encompassing field within which consciousness unfolds, arises or is entertained. This field has no defining spatial or temporal parameters. Time and extension is that which it sets before itself but its own dimensionless features can never be an object of presentation unless consciousness is intuited to be equally bereft of the time and space by which it is defined. To arrive at that juncture – to look in that mirror is, as Hui Neng suggests, to see the features of our face before we were born. In western terms it is to comprehend something of the dimensionless singularity from which the universe has proceeded. Logicians will argue that much of what follows is tautological and void of logical content. We will agree and suggest that this very void is that of which we write. We will further argue that it is the key to understanding the pattern we take to be ourselves at the extremity of what that understanding might mean. It is therefore, a paradigm and if tautological, the Tautological Paradigm.

Berkeley intuited that events could not sustain any claim to reality unless they, in some sense, were beheld. (I) To sustain sounds of trees falling in an empty forest he imagined an eavesdropping God who was alert to pastoral mishaps. Berkeley was a bishop and can be forgiven the gentle nepotism that sought for deity employment in the calamitous 18th century. Being more secularly disposed we shall locate the manifest of creation in the nexus of our own unconscious. The unconscious has a long history predating the limitations to which Freud subjected it. In Sophocles we find it brooding in the chorus, in Shakespeare we find it producing a ghostly dagger — in Dostoevsky, the ecstatic dementia of Roskolonkov.

Thoreau suggests something of the meaning we seek when he suggests

that every sentence has two sides:

“One faces the world, but the other is infinite and confronts the gods “

(2)

 The unconscious, (that which we take to be the hidden), is embraced by a universe of disclosure. Whatever its disguise, the universe can do none other than disclose the contents of itself, to itself — its content is itself and can be none other. The supposedly undisclosed is the intimate other with whom we slowly tango and thereby, conceive the fecundity of the cosmos. The world is structured in many frames of temporal and spatial embodiment. The conscious field of a fly is demarcated by different dimensions of space and time than that of a chess master. The sensitivities of any given species describe different endowments that in some measure are their raison d’être. The vision of an eagle, the hearing of your pet mongrel, the radar sensibilities of a hungry bat are all instances of measurable vagaries discerned in the non-human realm. Radio frequencies paint a far different portrait of the sky than that with which the palette of our eyes is familiar. We are of the odd prejudice that believes the world is as it appears and only rarely appreciate how our brains sculpt the contours of creation.

Our computation of time is decidedly anthropic. The Mayfly arises in a dawn only to drop thereafter, in the twilight of a single day. Its lifetime is measured in a rising and setting of the sun – its progeny secured in the fertile commingling of corpses. There are members of the Bristle Cone Pine family that predate the birth of Christ. They as little note the fevered passing of human generation as they do the turning of another fall. We can also discern varying degrees of sensitivity to space and time among members of our own species. A wine expert can detect dozens of variations to what generally would be diagnosed as a definitive cabernet. The Eskimo discerns a subtly of snow that appears only as sludge or powder to the holiday skier. The Yogi is little surprised to find Lysgeric Acid capitulating arenas of consciousness with which he has long been familiar. (3) These differences allow consciousness the possibility of disclosure.

What we conceive as other than ourselves – minds, things, places or times –– is as intimately ourselves as that of which we are conscious. The multiplicity of our differences arises in an equivalency of ground. That ground is an encompassing field extending throughout the cosmos. It is all encompassing because it is without the limits that can be contained in consciousness – without given parameters of time and extension. It is that not ostensibly disclosed because it is that which is exclusively disclosed. Its apparent diversity when viewed through the immediate lens of the eye, the reaching lens of Mt. Palomar, or the probing eye of an electron — however we believe them participant in our consciousness, are our consciousness when so participant. That a friend or lover has a consciousness apart from our own is inferred but not directly known by us. That a falling tree thunders to the forest floor is inferred though not directly known to our experience. What we think of as our mind is not conscious of itself as it beholds its contents. The mind is always “behind” any content or disclosure and identical to it.

To suggest the interdimensional unconscious is identical to the measurable quantities of the discernible world is to modify our notion of placement there within — to modify our notion of the enfolding field, there without. Sir Arthur Eddington speaks eloquently as a physicist to this point:

ö

 “We have found that where science has progressed the farthest the mind has but regained from nature that which the mind has put into nature. We have found a strange footprint on the shores of the unknown. We have devised profound theories, one after another, to account for its origin. At last, we have succeeded in reconstructing the creature that made the footprint. And lo! It is our own.” (2a)

  Hints of a more expansive grasp of the unconscious are suggested by Jung’s realm of the collective unconscious. This is an arena of shared unconsciousness. Jung believed this collective unconscious to be a storehouse encoding the history of the race.

Fourteen hundred years earlier, Vasubandhu conceived the “Alaya Consciousness” to be this same repository. Contrary to the claims of empiricism there were suggested realms of knowledge which transcended our experience. Beyond the experience of the days of our lives is that which links us to lives past and lives future. That linkage extends to what we believe the past to have been and what we imagine the future to be. Beyond what is present, the imagination can lay no greater claim to the reported past than it can the imagined future. The bias of history reveals no more of reality than the postulates of prediction. The past is no less speculative than any anticipation – Thucydides’ Wars no less a postulate than the conjectures of Nostradamus’Centuries. Once we remove space and time from our deliberations an equality descends on the reported past and the arriving future. Either is manifestly present and beyond the necessity of explication.

Any moment of what one remembers the past to have been shares with any other the prerogatives of the eternal:

 

“…We had the experience but missed the meaning.”(4)

 Any line we draw between one moment and another is an arbitrary exercise. We create the passage of time and it is a masterpiece of illusion. We can no more realistically separate one moment from another than we can a mountain from its skyline. Wittgenstein spoke of eternal life belonging to those who live in the present. He was not speaking of what we take to be duration – but rather a quality beyond the measurement of time. However fleeting we believe its passage – time abides, it is we who know departure. Any moment is irrevocably linked to every other back to and including genesis. Each moment is identical to the moment when time began. Emerson speaks of that identity in which all time shares:

“…one vast picture that God paints on the instant eternity.”

(4a)

In Bertrand Russell’s “The Analysis of Mind,” he infers that there is no logical inconsistency in supposing that the whole of creation came into being within the last fifteen minutes – with our memories thrown in as part of the bargain. In deference to Russell this was not a belief he entertained very seriously. In terms of our argument we shall suggest that the difference between fifteen minutes and fifteen billion years is not as lengthy a duration as one might otherwise suppose. When duration dissolves we find ourselves in a center seat for the clarion call that In the beginning heralds creation! In a discussion of the world as measured by physics, Lord Russell speaks of the difficulties that, as well, companion a world beyond the bound of measurement:

 “It is extraordinarily difficult to divest ourselves of the belief the physical world is the world we perceive by sight and touch; even if, in our philosophic moments, we are aware that this is an error, we nevertheless fall into it again as soon as we are off guard. The notion that what we see is “out there” in physical space is one which cannot survive while we are grasping the difference between what physics supposes to be really happening; but it is sure to return and plague us when we begin to forget the argument. Only long reflection can make a radically new point of view familiar and easy.” (5)

The Hindu believes the universe to begin in a dream of Vishnu. In further dilations he will explain that the constituents of the dream are equal to the dreamer. There is little discernable distance between that dream and one that begins in the violent stirring of a dimensionless singularity. In either instance we are shackled to our origins – our paternity linked to any singularity encountered in the brain. Evolution is the desire of the quantum to view itself in a cloud chamber at Cern. The vastness of that chamber is only measurable from within. Time and extension are inseparably embedded in any system to which the presumption of measurement is made. To preserve even a diminishing faith of a God that “does not play dice,” Einstein had to alter the parameters of time and space to a degree that might’ve sent deity back to the gaming table.

If we believe ourselves to be exclusively located between the top of our scalp and the tip of our toes – shallow are the mirrors that we have looked within. If, on the other ‘unclapped’ hand, consciousness is endowed with all space-time referents – time and dimensionality will be seen to melt away. It is in this sense that a grain of sand manifests the universal field and that in Japan in the century of Dante, Dogen would assert:

“All beings of the entire universe are in time

at each and every moment.” (5a)

No measurement is possible in a system that is always identical to the system being measured. We are in the habit of believing that consciousness is something that we have, like fingers, backaches, or the shining new car and its attendant monthly payment. Our sphere is further believed to be a receiving set that tunes in frequencies to which we are sensitive. We not only see ourselves as separate from these frequencies but also believe our receptivity to be of limited range. Aside from an occasional panoramic view, the average experiential confine is measurable in the viewing distance to a television. And there, if by chance, we find an astronomer musing on the aimlessly expanding cosmos our allotment of consciousness seems meager, indeed. Slender is the thread by which we hang or which shall shortly hang us. “As flies to wanton children so are we to the Gods.” (6) They’ll turn off our telephone or kill us for sport at the slightest provocation. It would appear that the suffering the Buddha saw was hardly worth the candle with which he proposed to light the path. Golgotha, not worthy a sound-bite on the evening news. Jesus was nailed to the branches of a Christmas tree. Siddhartha nearly starved beneath a ficus – the sacred pipal that companioned the miracle of his birth and his bodhi.. Two trees and the whispering expiation of sin and suffering. Both held that the consciousness of which they spoke was all encompassing – all things are Buddha-things & the spirit of Christ is found under even the lowliest of stones.

The world is a complexity beholden to the many definitions that so declare it. These vast storehouses of knowledge allow but little space for spirit, so it is a modest comfort to know that it might be close at hand: “pickup a piece of wood and you will find me there.” (7) It was, as well, a useful directive to rest from the six days of creation to contemplatively assess what one had wrought, on the seventh. The world seems to allow as little time for reflection as it does space for spirit. In suffering and sin we are bereft of both.

Language was believed by Wittgenstein to picture the world. (8) Heidegger suggested it was, as well, the “temple of being.” (9) As he came to have greater faith in poetry than in his own analysis he looked for what was spoken to say more than what was said. This most celebrated of western thinkers tipped his cap to Daisetz Suzuki as more succinctly stating what Heidegger had spent in a lifetime’s explication. The incident is recorded in William Barrett’s introduction to Zen Buddhism, Selected Writings of D.T. Suzuki.

“A German friend of Heidegger’s told me that one day when he visited Heidegger he found him reading one of Suzuki’s books; ‘If I understand this man correctly,’ Heidegger remarked, ‘this is what I have been trying to say in all my writings.’”

Foremost among Heidegger’s concern is the question of ‘being.’ Why is there something rather than nothing? It is a question more likely to arise in solitude than in a sermon. It is only fundamental for those for whom the question is percipient. To pass the question off to God is, at best, a subterfuge. If one’s notion of a supreme being is one that is separate from yourself and with whom you plan to idly converse, it seems likely that you will find him as bemusedly puzzled by the question as is the creation in whom it arises.

That there is an attendant anxiety arising with the question is easily surmised in the swiftness in which one seeks an answer. That the answer found will often not address its fundamental nature is again witnessed in the game of ‘musical pews,’ that many are found to play on a hopscotching regular basis. Fundamentally one must find the answer in a core-sensibility. It is only there, that it can be said to be fundamental. It is only when you make the consciousness of Christ your own that you might discover yourself to be the Buddha. To marvel at the Parthenon is to have hewed its marble and raised its stone.

Heidegger was fascinated in the relation between ‘being’ and the nothing that it seemed to belie. We will find this a particular fascination with varying Buddhist schools that we shall later wander amongst. The question of ‘being’ only arises for those who think it’s thought. Some feel that it is a question that should be left behind in the college dormitory. (10) It is, as well, a question probably not much on the minds of pregnant women, lawyers in litigation, accountants in tax season, or engineers hoping upon hope that the damn rocket doesn’t explode upon lift-off. That it attends each of these and any other aspect of ‘being who we are,’ is whereby we begin to sense its fundamental nature. The question of being is a calling in which each participates. Most must be forgiven for they know not what they do. It is, perhaps, in acknowledgment of the “time being out of joint,” that the question arises at all. It is in our desire to forgive the world for its good and bad and ourselves (for that same plentitude) that we begin to suspect their equivalence.

“Men must endure their going hence even as their coming hither.

 Ripeness is all.” (14a)

We will find that our facility for grasping alternative readings of the world is commensurate with our ability to disbelieve any conceptual notion we currently entertain. The difficulty is in dismantling structures that we believe so manifestly to be the world. If we can come to forgive what we once took for certainty, the world will reveal itself anew. The world will remain standing even without the support of everything we believed to have buoyed it up. This game of dismantling can be played upon any aspect of the world’s supposed history. It can be played on anything we or anyone else proclaims the world to be. The earth is manifestly what it is. This is a tautology. It conveys no information. For information to logically meaningful is to close one’s eyes to the fiction that any proposition can abide meaning without the opposition by which it can be seen opposed. We only doubt what we know, what we are in the supposed judgment of a mythic other or conglomerate who can claim no greater authority than that which we ourselves possess.

 

“All men go in flocks…they think society wiser than their soul and know not that one soul, and their soul, is wiser than the world.”

(14 b)

The claims for ascendance will have as much validity as the Northern Hemisphere proclaiming exclusivity of up. Any such proclamation will appear as obvious and hence ‘real’ to those who stand upon their feet, looking up in the assurance that those in an opposing configuration are looking down.

The same ‘knowledge’ will be apparent to those on the opposite side who fail to entertain the relativity of their difference. There is a cogent interdependence bonding the world’s diversity. That diversity is often seen in opposition. In Ethics we draw lines between right and wrong. In religion we are told of celestial wars and discover they have scorched the centuries in terrestrial flame. It matters little that Ishmael and Isaac were brothers. The Middle East suggests that hatred is a deeper bond. The fragments of Yugoslavia have given ample evidence that the taste for genocide was not a Nazi aberration. Up – down; pleasure – pain; hot – cold; sweet – sour; light – dark; good – evil. These are only a few of the opposing pairs with which we adumbrate the world. An allegiance to one or the other results in the absurd or the insane. In the 2nd instance we wade deep-kneed in carnage betokened by the bloody rigors of our righteousness. The definitions supporting these reside deeply beyond our conscious awareness. We come to know ourselves by the delusion of being solely our body. We occupy different bodies as casually as differing suits of clothes. We don the one and doff the other as the will so dictates. No matter what the seeming strum und drang we lay our bodies down no differently than the sloughing of a skin. This very night, thousands the earth over – are unmade as they go to meet their maker. We take little notice of the change of personnel – the years skate by like sin and we, as well, are shortly ripe for time’s concluding consummation. The temporal plane is wherein what we take to be our living we find to be our lives. It is also the floorboard upon which we two-step with the intimacy of death.

If we have not been grimly reaped before we’re forty we slowly discern the growing outline of our death, thereafter. Midway in our journey we find ourselves in Dante’s dusky wood. We begin to see the vaulting curve of our lives as an arc that has an end. In our first years we discover a voice and endeavor to find something to say. Thereafter the discourse is disrupted by evolution’s demand for progeny. As these depart we find ourselves much further through the dance than when the band first struck up a tune.

If we have something to say it must soon be said. Death becomes a more brooding palpable presence – its outline more clearly defined. That we impart a singular significance to the final choke and rattle is not to acknowledge that death was with us long before the dance began. The face of death is at last, our own. We are death – “… the destroyer of worlds.”

(15)

We have been death since the moment of conception. It is not logically expedient that because the dead are buried that in life they don’t abide. Krishna whispers to Arjuna:

“… you can’t kill what has never been created.” (16)

We have always been that emptiness from which the whole of life is consequent. We will always be the darkness into which the day descends.

Our ancestors and fallen loved ones have not only entered the dark night of their souls but have, as well, entered the living consciousness of our own. Our shadowed adversary is both child and father to the man. Looking through the window of time be assured that death is a patient assignation. The totality of time is only known in fragments. All time, whatever its duration, abides and then departs. Eternity is a breath that fills the lungs and is of necessity exhaled. The past, however distant, is no less connected to our present than any brevity beheld. The pulse of time abides not only in the familiarity of sequence but in dimensions of duration only few have come to know. Dogen still walks an eternity of earth for his internment knows only the testament of time. Funeral leavings in the Valley of the Kings equally share the instant of our dissolution. The betrothed of silken heaven whisper banns in velvet hells and are paired in pantomimes wedded since the womb.

 

Life is beheld by the eyes of death.

Darkness is, indeed, upon the face of the deep and illumination only possible

in the charnel house

of the soul.

“So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.”

(18)

“The evening and the morning” are the first and only day we’ll ever know. The whole of life is a meditation in the mind of death — the dark side of a mirror in which we fear reflection.

The eyes of death behold the molting world.

 

TAKES A LICKING AND…

The speed of light is impervious to the speed of the bodies from which it emanates. Einstein realized that the discovery of that aberration would necessitate a reworking of our commonsense notions of time and space. Speed was always viewed as a relation relative to the ground by which it was measured. You are walking forward in a train at a pace of two miles an hour. Your speed relative to the passing countryside is a consequence of the addition of your speed to that of the moving train. If you had been walking toward the caboose we would have subtracted the speed of your perambulation. This is elementary physics. If light operated in an elementary way we would conclude that the speed of light, as issuing from a flashlight held in the direction of the train’s forward movement would be greater than light turned in the direction of the caboose. In one experiment the measurements were taken in relation to the light reflected from a moon of Jupiter. It was confirmed that the speed of light was unaffected by any of the relational speeds to which it was measured. Einstein realized that if the speed of light was constant, we would have to have a more plastic notion of the time and space in which it was propagated.

If you can’t add speed to the movement of light, then the variables of space and time must mutate to allow for its constancy. Curved space and time dilation were predictions of general relativity that have been empirically confirmed. Our mythos of an observable space proceeding in a measurable time has been discovered to be relative to the speed wherein the measurement is made. Whimpy’s promised payment for a hamburger today is scuttled if he departs Burger King approaching the speed of light. His intention of proffering the promised quarter (on the ‘morrow) will be thwarted by alterations in space and time.

Returning from a day’s flight around the cosmos he’ll find his lenders long since interred within the earth and hardly a hamburger in sight. Augustine admitted feeling quite comfortable with the notion of time until he subjected it to the scrutiny of thought. (1) What is this river whose torrent carries us inescapably to an anticipated oblivion? The physical apprehension of time is simply a measurement related to the ticking of two different clocks. The ticking of your Timex is related to the pulse that is the earth’s circumnavigation of the sun. We call this relation a year.

If our ticking must measure shorter intervals we might compare our sweep second hand to the beating heart of the cesium atom. We would thus determine that our atomic clockworks had ticked off some 9,192,631,770 oscillations during the passing of one second into another. (2) This is over 4 times the number of seconds in an average life span. An event relative to this time frame could be said to endure (during the passage of one second) considerably longer than our three score and ten. The universal pulse is thought to have begun fifteen to eighteen billion years ago. If we multiply the number of oscillations in the cesium atom times the two billion seconds in an average lifetime we arrive at a number approaching 18×1018. This is of a similar magnitude to the number of seconds in the previously mentioned 18 billion years {56×1016 seconds}.

Each of these clocks, and I am not forgetting the Timex, need no winding for they tick quite naturally of their own accord. An event in time is enclosed by a measured interval. It may be said to be floating in a present that is demarked from where we define the event to have begun and where we arbitrate that it has concluded. At a given juncture of space-time these words were jumping fitfully upon a computer screen. We could designate the present that the previous sentence occupied by punching the key that began the sentence. We could, thereafter, be cognizant of its departure to the past with the punch of the n key with which the sentence concluded. We could have, as well, designated a shorter period of duration by designating the enclosure of an individual word or the punch of a single key. Either interval would, as well, have participated in a considered present before departing to its regarded past.

The writing of a single letter could also be placed in relation to a single oscillation of the cesium atom. In that instance the event interval between punched keys would make the writing of this book a formidable task. By measuring the event interval in relation to the formation of our home galaxy we can see some measure of light at the end of the tunnel. The effort of our writing (in that regard) as well as your reading (not to mention the passing of our respective lives) will conclude momentarily. Time is a relation and its duration is determined by which clock we choose to so relate it. A psychological present moment is only enclosed by events reflected upon as having receded into the past. In any discussion of time we must designate an event horizon. We may take note of passing moments. We may, as well, see our youth as a single event proceeding the adulthood we presently find ourselves within. A father may always think of his daughter as his little girl and be amazed to find himself a grandfather.

Marcel, in A La Rechere du Temps Perdue, was annoyed to find himself at a party for which he should have worn a costume. His annoyance turned to despair when he realized that no one was actually in costume. He and his friends were simply clothed in the cloth of old age. This was an outfit he was unaware of owning, he had no memory of its time or tailor.

“… And in myself, too, many things have perished which, I imagined, would last forever, and new structures have arisen, giving birth to new sorrow and new joys which in those days I could not have foreseen, just as my father has been able to tell Mamma to “Go with the child.” Never again will such hours be possible for me. But of late I have been increasingly able to catch, if I listen attentively, the sound of sobs which I had the strength to control in my father’s presence, and which broke out only when I found myself alone with Mamma. Actually, their echo has never ceased: it is only because life is now growing more and more quiet round about me that I hear them afresh, like those convent bells which are so effectively drowned during the day by the noises of the streets that one would suppose them to have been stopped for ever, until they sound out again through the silent evening air.” (3)

Despairing of time, let us join Marcel for tea:

“… one day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called ‘petites madelieines,’ which look as though they had been molded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disaster innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself…I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake but that if it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. Whence did it come? What did it signify? How could I seize upon and define it?”

How indeed?

While he sips his tea, if he doesn’t delineate between the events of heating the water, dipping the tea bag, and stirring the cream; each of these events will take place in the experienced present of drinking his tea. It is clear that any of the events, as so described, could have been ripped from the seamless whole of tea-time by simply reflecting that any aspect of the experience was no longer there. On a level that we have little awareness any event can be a shattered fragment or a contiguous eon.

There is a measurable past taking place as Marcel drinks his tea and a measurable future residing in the framework of the same series depending on how he defines the horizon in question. We can plot designated intervals and accept as real, events whose minuteness is distantly beyond any possibility of awareness. We can also plot a temporal framework that stretches our present moment to levels of time and interval reclamation that are also only dimly perceived – though they may rise to the intuition:

“I drink a second mouthful, in which I find nothing more than in the first, a third, which gives me rather less than the second. It is time to stop… And then for the second time I clear an empty space in front of it. I place in position before my mind’s eye the still recent taste of that first mouthful, and I feel something start within me, something that leaves its resting-place and attempts to rise, something that has been embedded like an anchor at a great depth; I do not know yet what it is, but I can feel it mounting slowly; I can measure the resistance, I can hear the echo of great spaces traversed.”

A digital watch informs in the fundamental pulsing of a quartz battery in intervals of seconds, minutes, and hours. Let’s imagine a timepiece that only pulses upon the hour. Much more of our present would be packed into such an interval than in that demarcated by seconds. On a psychological level we might assert that any number of events had retreated to our past before the hour struck. We are, however, entertaining time as a mechanical measurement — be it the turning of the earth or the hourly pulse of the timepiece we are considering. The hourly interval is our designated event horizon. The events therein can be designated as one event or we could take their measure by the 9 billion oscillations exploding every second in the cesium atom. We shall instead modify our Timex until it only ticks once every 365.25 days. Our experience as measured by this clock will produce a present moment that will not cease until the earth returns from yet another sojourn of the sun.

We are the clockmakers. At any interval in which the tick is measured we are the hearts responsible for the measured beat. That beat can be said to have begun long before our birth and to enclose a horizon extending long after we cease to be. We are at the heart of a tick that pulsed 15 billion years ago. In this the present moment we carry those years with us as surely as those subsequent soon to follow. The continuum of time is only experienced in the moment we call the present. An event horizon is an arbitrary device that can be modulated to include any aspect of the past or future. It was in a correspondent faith that Whitman, in addressing a reader a hundred years hence, could express his desire to companion his distant ‘comerado’ and caution his future reader to be not too sure that this wasn’t in fact the case. (4)

The desire for continuance has saddled us with a soul and a baggage of dualities that have never been experienced. To that baggage we cling in a desperate attempt to engage the mystery of life so as resist the prospect of a final dissolution. The soul is a projected ego that is no more protected from oblivion than oblivion is protected from the soul. The problem of the ego is not in its appreciation of itself, but rather in its lack of identity with its not self, – which is to say the ground from which itof necessity, flowers. Its being-here-now springs as surely from its not being before it was, and its not being thereafter it ceases to be. The limited event horizon in which life is commonly defined is to only see oneself, in Whitman’s phrase, ‘between your hat and your boots.’(5)

The mythos of genealogy is a record of one’s family’s participation in the makeup of a particular genetic code. The mythos of biology traces the constituents of that code back four billion years in the tag team of what we call living evolution. The physicist enlarges the myth by extending the cell’s non-living constituents through a devolution extending back to the initial conception of the Big Bang. Whether immaculate or no it is from whence we’ve come a calling.

We might only question by which clock we take our measure and in which space we lay our rule?

“…and suddenly the memory returns. The taste was that of the little crumb of madeleine… on Sunday mornings at Combray… when from a long distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection. And once I had recognized the taste of the crumb of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-flowers… immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like the scenery of a theatre to attach itself to the little pavilion, opening on to the garden, which had been built out behind it for my parents… and with the house, the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I was sent before luncheon, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine. And just as the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little crumbs of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch themselves and bend, take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or house or people, permanent and recognizable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and M. Swann’s park, and the water-lillies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwelling and the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surrounding, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.”

 When our trusty Timex ticks its last and the rising and the setting sun (the light from which illuminated the mind of young Einstein) ceases to be drawn in relation to the evening and morning of the first day (when darkness and light were first designated) then the last beat of our hearts will retreat to an era long before it was given a name and be more distantly primeval than what cosmology presently considers a beginning –

and we shall have a cup of tea…

From the perspective of the Paradigm, time is a tautology. Each moment is generative of all others and is their equal.

 

PLATO: SHADOW DANCING

What is being, insomuch that we should concern ourselves with it? We might as readily ask who are we, insomuch that being concerns itself with us? Deity tells Moses that his name is I Am. The Buddha’s defining principle of self is anatman or no self. Hamlet ponders whether to be or not to be and Descartes determines that because he thinks he therefore is and we all sleep more peaceably for this fortuitous discovery. Heidegger believed language is the temple of being. In that temple we might fitfully begin.

Some years short of a half millennium before Christ, a wide shouldered Greek of aristocratic bearing and a Pythagorean pension for mathematics and the metaphysical, noticed that the meaning conveyed by language might be less than perfectly connective to the end it was commonly believed directed. When Plato spoke of a rock or a tree or a wine dark wave arising on the Aegean, he discerned among his students sympathy of understanding. At some point he came to believe that no repetition of these statements could refer to the same phenomenon, wherein equivalence could be maintained. The world of becoming was not tautological – language could not assert the certainty of his beloved mathematics. He made the simple observation that no two rocks or no two trees had ever repeated themselves.. As circular as the world might purportedly be – in it he could find no circles. That language conveyed equivalence to anything in the phenomenal world was, it seemed to him – a play of shadows.

In book 7 of The Republic he elucidates Philosophy’s premiere allegory – That of the Cave and its attendant Shadows. He asks us to imagine a world deep within the earth. In this society live two peoples. The first group has been chained by foot and neck to a post on the floor of the cave. They are so secured that they can only stare straightforward to a flat wall some distance in front of them.. Behind them is a wall not unlike that of a screen that shields a puppeteer from revelation to his audience. Behind this wall ( a man’s height below it) is a walkway. Behind the wall and walkway a large fire burns, warming and illuminating the cave. The population that uses the walkway also carries their goods and artifacts on their heads during their peripatetic sojourns along the walled walkway. This perambulation produces a series of dramatic shadows on the flat wall of the cave. These shadows are the only entertainment the chained people have come to know – as if captives of Network Television – it is the only world they know. Vases, sculptures, tree and animals are poised atop a multitude of heads. They cast their celebrated shadows as they are paraded between fire and cavern wall.

Behind this fanciful world of shadow, artifact and flame is the world illuminated by the Sun. Plato imagines a chained person escaping his shackles. The now freeman is amazed to see this world of artifact and flame. He is further amazed to discover an even richer world outside the depths of the netherworld from which he issued. He returns and liberates his brothers. He tells them of his discoveries. He finds that they prefer their shackles and their shades. They gather rocks. They stone their liberator to death and return to their comfortable illusions.

The shadows participate in the lowest level of Plato’s reality. Up from these are the artifacts that cast the shadows. These, like artistic creations, are imitations on a higher tier than the illusory shades but still a great distance from truth. Higher still are the contours of the world we take to be the reality of our lives. Plato avers that this world is very much like the shadows in the caves. Behind our Shadows are Plato’s eternal ideas. Recalling the conjectures of the more somberly disposed Heaclietus confirmed his suspicions of the shadowy reality of which his senses partook. The fixed groves outside the Academy would, at times, seem as ephemeral as the older man’s swift flowing streams. Whatever qualities the forest might share with a tree, the reality of a tree was not to be found in any forest. No two trees could be said to equal each other. At the behest of worm and winter no one could be said to equal itself.

Plato takes the notion of flux and shadow and applies it to the underpinnings of the phenomenal world. To his mind this world is as illusory as the Hindu’s Maya. Taking that lead as Plato had before him Shakespeare’s Prospero suggests that we are such stuff as dreams are made of and our little life rounded by a great sleep. Plato agreed with the Sophists on the relativity of truth. He t went on to conjecture a sphere in which the light of the Sun would never fail or fall to falsity. To this he was as inevitably drawn as any mystic seeking union with the flame of God. . The Ideas, when embraced by the unifying illumination of the Sun become what Plato calls The Good. What that might be has tantalized Western thought for over two thousand years.

One line of his thought is connected with his disparagement of drama: “Neither will we allow our young men to hear the words of Homer and Aeschylus,” wherein the virtue of the gods is called into question. The Good in this context is God as represented by Plato the moralist who, later in the laws, becomes Plato the proto-fascist.

The Republic is, justly, the most famous and influential of his Dialogues. In it Plato postulates a society governed by Guardians protected by a military and served by guilds that supply the material needs of the utopia.. The guardians would know the truth of the eternal ideas and their unity in the Good. The rest of society would be told the fairytale of a hereafter of rewards and punishments. It was hoped the Great Lie would keep the democratic rabble in a bovine contentment as they served the state in which they resided. Medieval Europe followed much of this design. Christendom was to adopt the philosopher as if the last in the long line of Old Testament Prophets. Augustine’s City of God was a Platonic Ideal conjured in contrast to a Roman world that was falling even as he wrote it. And if Plato’s ‘Great Lie’ would one day bring Galileo before the inquisition and Bruno to the flame it also appointed monks to be the Guardian’s of classical culture through the dark centuries that commenced in the cataclysm of Rome’s dissolution.

The Good is an ontological principle. For Emerson Plato was Philosophy and Philosophy was Plato, to wit: “This is the ultimate fact which we so so quickly reach on this as on every topic, the resolution of all into the everblessed One.” 

The everblessed one is found in Plato’s imagination whenever seeks for the final unity of the Good:

“And may we not say of the philosopher that he is a lover, not a part of wisdom only, but of the whole? … Being is the sphere or subject-matter of knowledge and knowledge is to know the nature of being … philosophers only are able to grasp the eternal and unchangeable and those who wander in the region of the many and the variable are not philosophers… the true lover of learning … desires all truth.. Move spontaneously toward the true being of everything… the true lover of knowledge is always striving after being… he will not rest in the multiplicity which is appearance only…. But will go on until he has obtained the knowledge of the true nature of everything…. Neither injuring nor injured by one another but all in order moving according to reason. The good is… the author of Knowledge and all things known.”

The Good to Plato was the Universal confluence of the isolated shadows in the realm of the Eternal Ideas. And as to our earlier query as to what being might have to do with us we will close, once again with the Platonism of the Yankee whom Nietsche called American’s Plato, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

“These appearances indicate the fact that the universe is represented in every one of its particles. Every thing in nature contains all the power of nature. Every thing is made of one hidden stuff … the world globes itself in a drop of dew … The true doctrine of omnipresence is that God reappears with all his parts in every moss and cobweb… In how many churches is man made sensible… that the earth and heavens are passing into his mind … that he is drinking forever the soul of God. In the woods nothing can befall me … I become a transparent eyeball: I am nothing; I see all, the currents of Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and parcel of God.”

THOMAS MANN

“Gustave Aschenbach was the poet spokesman of all those who labour at the edge of exhaustion; of those who are already worn out but still hold themselves upright; of all our modern moralizers of accomplishment, with stunted growth and scanty resources, who yet contrive by skillful husbanding and prodigious spasms of will to produce, at least for a while, the effect of greatness. “

One can easily substitute the name Thomas Mann for that of Aschenbach and suffer little loss of meaning. Mann knew the value of his own writings. He identified himself with the giants of the 19th century because he absorbed them and felt no diminishment in their presence.

In Death In Venice he finds the secret plague of the city the metaphor for the secret longings of his heart. Aschenbach will die for that longing but finds strength and beauty in his disease. Mann held that disease is not to be regarded as wholly negative. In his essay on Dostoyevsky we find: “but after all and above all it depends on who is diseased., who mad, who epileptic or paralytic: an average dull-witted man, in whose illness any intellectual or cultural aspect is non-existant; or a Nietzsche or Dostoyevsky. In their case something comes out in illness that is more important and conductive to life and growth than any medical guaranteed health or sanity… in other words: certain conquests made by the soul and the mind are impossible without disease, madness, crime of the spirit.”

Throughout the Dostoyevsky essay he finds parallels between the Russian and the sufferings of Zarathustra, his beloved Frederich Nietzsche. Speaking of Nietzsche he says: “his personal feelings initiate him into those of the criminal… in general all creative originality, all artist nature in the broadest sense of the word, does the same. It was the French painter and sculptor, Degas who said that an artist must approach his work in the spirit of the criminal about to commit a crime.”

Disease and criminality in Mann and in the creative spirit are beyond good and evil. They are windows to the revelation of the dark side of the moon – Mann’s heroes look into the soul’s abyss and rise infinitely beyond the bourgeois morality that condemns them:

Aschenbach had once given direct expression … to the idea that almost everything consciously great is great despite: has come into being in defiance of affliction and pain; poverty, destitution, bodily weakness, vice, passion, and a thousand other obstructions. And that was more than observation – it was the fruit of experience, it was precisely the formula of his life and fame, it was the key to his work.”

Throughout Death In Venice Aschenbach muses on the Platonic ideals of beauty and form. Rather than a subterfuge of his longing it is rather a release from the tyranny of Schopenhauer’sWill. Schopenhauer determined that the only “thing in itself” that he could sit down and near was what the Upanishads call the “Self.” The will was more intimate than even one’s physical body It was the only thing that was nomenon known. By this he meant that we did not experience will through the senses. It could never be an object set at a distance. You could never contemplate yourself contemplating. It was the only immediately known. The only “thing-in-itself” not filtered through Kant’s categories of understanding – the ordering principles of the human mind.

Mann reiterates this notion in his essay on Freud. “Freud showed that the psyche is unconscious of itself, and that consciousness is only a property that may be present at the psychic process, whose absence makes no difference to it.” Aschenbach’s only hope of redemption was to clothe his longings in cloak of art.

Schopenhauer showed the way: “In some men knowledge can break free… and stand free of the will and its aims, sheerly in and for itself …as a clean mirror of the world – which is the order and consciousness of art. Listen to the echo of Schopenhauer in, Aschenbach: “What discipline, what precision of thought were expressed by the tense youthful perfection of this form! And yet the pure strong will, which had labored in darkness and succeeded in bringing this godlike work of art to the light of day – was it not known and familiar to him, the artist? Was not the same force at work in himself when he strove … to liberate from the marble mass of language the slender forms of his art which he saw with eye of his mind and would body forth to men as the mirror and the image of spiritual beauty?”

Aschenbach’s reveries of Tadzio are the only things standing between himself and the abyss. It is only in their timeless evocation that the will is arrested from its suicidal dash through time. The beauty of the boy is an idea contemplated in eternity:

Mann, with Schopenhauer would aver: “This separate thing which in that general stream has been but the least vanishing particle, becomes, when so regarded, an epiphany of the whole – equivalent to the entire unending manifold of time.”

HOMER: THE MAKER

He had never lingered among the pleasures of memory. Impressions, momentary and vivid, would wash over him: a potters vermilion glaze; the sky-vault filled with stars that were also gods; the moon from which a lion had fallen; the smoothness of marble under his sensitive, slow fingertips, the taste of wild boar meat, which he liked to tear at with brusque, white bites; a Phoenician word; the black shadow cast by a spear on the yellow sand; the nearness of the sea or a woman; heavy wine, its harsh edge tempered by honey — these things could flood the entire circuit of his soul.

Gradually, the splendid universe began drawing away from him; a stubborn fog blurred the lines of his hand; the night lost its peopling stars, the earth became uncertain under his feet. Everything grew distant, and indistinct. When he learned he was going blind, he cried out… Days and nights passed over this despair of his flesh, but one morning he awoke, looked (with calm now) at the blurred things that lay about him, and felt, inexplicably, the way one might feel upon recognizing a melody or a voice, that all this had happened to him before and that he had faced it with fear but also joy and hopefulness and curiosity. Then he descended into his memory, which seemed to him endless, and managed to draw up from that vertigo the lost remembrance that gleamed like a coin in the rain — perhaps because he had never really looked at it except (perhaps) in a dream.

With grave wonder, he understood. In this night of his mortal eyes into which he was descending, love and adventure were also awaiting him. Ares and Aphrodite — because now he began to sense (because now he began to be surrounded by) a rumor of glory and hexameters, a rumor of men who defend a temple that the gods will not save, a rumor of black ships that set sail in search of a beloved isle, the rumor of the Odysseys and Illiads that it was his fate to sing and to leave echoing in the cupped hands of human memory.”

The poet of whom Borges mused was, of course, Homer. Within a pair of centuries that, further to the east, the scribe, J was recording the court history of David and Solomon – the Greek poet was shaping the remembered songs and stories of Greek heroes who fought and died on the plains of Ilium, during the century that Moses walked on the bottom of a sea and climbed a fabled mountain. The writer or writers of the Torah transformed their history into religion – binding Jews, Christians and Muslims to their respective faiths. Homer transformed the collective memory of his people and Western Civilization was bound to the startling visions of a blind man who had forged his epics into art. The literature of the Occident begins at this juncture. Near three thousand years have come and gone — during which traversal his work has been approached but not surpassed. His children are many. A short list would include Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Virgil, Lucretius, Seneca Boetius, Dante, Chaucer, Cellini, Raphael, Michaelangelo, Titian, El Greco, Shakespeare, Milton, Rembrandt, Rubens, Poussin, Watteau, David, Shelly, Bryon, Keats, Joyce, Becket, Pound, Eliot and Kazanzachis.

He has equally influenced Classic and Romantic sentiments. He was the unifying structure in which the 5th century Greece came to flower. At the height of the Augustan Empire we find him resolutely in Virgil’s Aenied and perhaps Dante and Virgil found him in the outer rings of the Inferno because they had borrowed so much from him. Chaucer and Shakespeare recast his characters and plots in their respective Trollius and Cressidas. Milton follows his lead and his loss of sight while composing Paradise Lost. Painters of the Renaissance, the Baroque and the Romantic eras have never tired of peopling their canvases with his characters and tableaus. Berlioz, was of course, named for the hero Hector. He culminated his career by composing an opera so gigantic that Les Troyens’ first performance had to await the passage of a hundred years before it was heard and proclaimed among the three or four operatic masterpieces of the 19th century.

And finally, the seminal novel of the 20th Century finds within the 24 books of Homer’s Odyssey the inspiration for the 24 hours of a June day in Dublin. Homer’s ubiquity is as certain as his art.

He, along with perhaps Shakepeare, Mozart, and Rembrandt, has peered most deeply into the human heart and the gods who are its richest projection. The dichotomy between the human and the divine is one of his great themes. In the Iliad we find gods who are wholly human and we find, as well, humans who aspire to the stature of their immortal counterparts. When Hector or Achilles take the field of battle it is as if the Titans once again shake the earth as they walk upon it. Achilles bears a spear that few could heft and none other could throw. Hector’s mighty sword cuts a frenzied swathe through any Greek garrison that opposes him – and yet at times, he chooses not to slay. From Shakespeare’s play the Greek Nestor comments on a humanity exceeding that of the gods:

I have, thou gallant Trojan, seen thee oft ..

When thou hast hung thy advanced sword in the air,

Not letting it decline on the declin’d,

That I have said to some my standers by

“Lo, Jupiter is yonder, dealing — life.”

Few battle sequences, up to and including those that have visited the monster multi-plexes, come close to rivaling those that inhabit the dactylic hexameters of Homer’s verse. Hear him as he describes the Trojan throngs encamped by firelight outside the walls of Troy:

As in dark forests, measureless along / the crests of hills, a conflagration soars, / and the bright bed of fire glows for miles, / now fiery lights from this great host in bronze / played on the earth and flashed high into heaven.

And hear, as well, Homer’s first description of the mighty clash of arms:

This great army, Ares urged on; the other, grey-eyed Athena, / Terror and Rout and Hate, insatiable sister-in-arms of man destroying Ares / Athena frail at first, but growing till she reared head through heaven as she walks the earth. / Once more she sowed ferocity, traversing the ranks of men, redoubling groans and cries. / When the long lines met at the point of contact, / there was a shock of bull’s hide, battering pikes, / and weight of men in bronze. / A great din rose, / in one same air elation and agony / of men destroying and destroyed and earth astream with blood.

The Iliad and the Odyssey are glorious national epics and taken together two of the most subversive anti-war tracts ever written. As Greeks and Trojans fall under “the black waves of war” there is a melee over the armour of the dead. Homer imagines “wolves whirling on each other, man to man.” On the death of Trojan soldier he suggests:

“To his dear parents he never made return for all their care, but had his life cut short when Ajax’s shaft unmanned him.”

The Greeks spend ten years trying to burn the citadel of Troy to redeem a woman who believes herself a harlot. “In low tones enticing Helen murmured to Hector:

Brother dear — / dear to a whore, a nightmare of a woman! / That day my mother gave me to the world / I wish a hurricane blast had torn me away to wild mountains and tumbling sea. / to be washed under by a breaking wave, / before these evil days could come. / You are the one afflicted most by harlotry in me and by his madness.

And again in an reverie worthy of Prospero, she muses

Agamemnon is brother to the husband of a wanton or was that life a dream.

Odysseus spends ten years trying to return to his island home of Ithaca to a wife who remains faithful through two decades of a nightmare separation. Only in Shakespeare are such ironic symmetries achieved. In the Iliad thousands are slaughtered so that the victors will gain the fame and immortality known only by the gods. In the Odyssey the goddess Calypso offers to make Ulysses a god — he prefers instead the freedom to return home simply as a man of whom only a dying dog might takes notice.

Some might remember a fanciful film called The Highlander. The story concerned a group of immortals that would seek each other out to battle for what was cryptically called “The Prize.” Only the last surviving immortal could qualify to claim its glory. By story’s end The Prize is discovered to be simple mortality. Odysseus returns home so he can love his wife and child and grow old and die.

In the Iliad, Andromache pleads with Hector to forgo a coming battle:

Andromache rested against him and shook away a tear. No pity for our child, poor little one, or me in my sad lot — soon to be derived of you! Soon, soon Akhaians as one man will set upon you and cut you down! Better for me, without you, to take cold earth for mantle. No more comfort, no other warmth, after you meet your doom, but heartbreak only.

Berlioz perfectly captures that heartbreak after the death that the wife foresaw. Achilles has slain Hector. And in an outrage to honor, drags the mangled corpse behind his chariot before the walls of Troy. The following day at a Temple in Troy, the widow, in silent bereavement has her child place flowers at a sacred altar. The people make way while whispering sentiments of sympathy. Andromache is overcome. Cassandra reflects that she should save her tears for disasters yet to be. Andromache takes her child’s hand and leads him slowly from the stage. A Trojan chorus mummers a collective sigh.

HOMER: ILLIUM’S DISTANT SHORE

For the first essay of this series I opened with an abridgement of a short story by Borges. The story was an account of a poet’s descent into blindness. The poet was Homer. It was, for Borges, a metaphor of his own blindness. In a strange concatenation of reflections, I’m sure that the sightless Joyce was not far from his thoughts, not far from that night when the sky first lost its stars, far from Ilium’s distant shores.

For the 2nd essay in this series I’ve also selected a piece by Borges. It is from a volume of his poems. The volume is called In Praise of Darkness. The Poem is entitled, James Joyce.

In a man’s single day are all the days

of time from that unimaginable

first day, when a terrible God marked out

the days and agonies, to that other,

when the ubiquitous flow of earthly

time goes back to its source, Eternity,

and flickers out in the present, past,

and the future — what now belongs to me.

Between dawn and dark lies the history

of the world. From the vault of night I see

at my feet the wanderings of the Jew,

Carthage put to the sword, Heaven and Hell.

Grant me, O lord, the courage and the joy

to ascend to the summit of this day.

The day to which Borges refers (in the assumed voice of the expatriate Irishman) is Bloomsday. June 16, 1904. Between dawn and dark lies the history of the world. Bloomsday is any day. Leopold Bloom is every man. We are each Ulysses. The passage of one day to another — is an odyssey. For these metaphors we thank Homer and those indebted to him, whom down the millennia have followed in his lead.

The Iliad concerns itself with 47 days near the end of a decade of war. The Trojan Horse episode is not found within its pages. Homer’s great story begins with the wrath of Achilles for the slight he received from Agamennon. It ends when he takes his wrath out on Hector, symbolically slaying his nemesis and then symbolically forgiving him by granting King Priam access to his son’s body for a proper funeral.

Homer tells the story of the hollow horse in his second epic, the Odyssey. Here the poet sings of another decade of travail but as in the first epic, he concerns himself with 41 days in the 10th year of a hero’s wanderings. This shrinkage of a decade to just over a month, in both epics is not dissimilar to the compression of Joyce’s 260,000-word novel to a single day. The episode of the Trojan Horse in the Odyssey is worth noting because Homer makes an appearance thinly disguised as the blind poet Demodocus. This from Book VIII:

Someone go find the gittern harp in hall

And bring it quickly to Demodocus!

Now to his harp the blinded minstrel sang

The harp image is one of pathos. The blind poet sings to his harp and not to the nobility of the court of which he is only provisionally aware. One is reminded of another musician lost in music he could not hear. At the conclusion of the premiere performance of his 9th symphony, Beethoven did not realize the orchestra had finished before him. When the audience saw him conducting the final phrases in silence – they realized with a shock that he had heard nothing of the fabled performance to which history has long since thrilled: “Now to his harp the blinded minstrel sang.”

Upon conclusion of that song, Odysseus cuts the finest portion of his “chine of pork” and gives it to the poet with this praise and request:

All men owe to the poets — honor

and awe, for they are dearest to the Muse

who puts upon their lips the ways of life.

Now shift your theme and sing that wooden horse

Epeios inspired by Athena —

The ambuscade Odysseus filled with fighters

and sent to take the inner town of Troy.

Sing only this for me, sing me this well,

and I shall say at once before the world

The grace of heaven has given us a song.

 

The poet sings the tale. More interesting than the heroic tale itself is the reaction of Odysseus upon hearing it:

 And Odysseus

Let the bright molten tears run down his cheeks,

Weeping the way a wife mourns for her lord

On the lost field where he has gone down fighting

The day of wrath that came upon his children

At the sight of the man panting and dying there;

She slips down to enfold him crying out;

Then feels the spears prodding her back and shoulders,

And goes into slavery and grief.

Piteous weeping wears away her cheeks

But no more piteous than Odysseus’ tears,

Cloaked as they were, from the company

Only Alkinoos, at his elbow, knew —

Hearing the low sob in the man’s breathing …

To compare the great Odysseus with a weeping maiden bespeaks something of the Odyssey that Homer himself has made in his maturity. It is one of the earliest instances in Western Literature of the emotional commingling of the sexes. We see the same image in reverse when Othello welcomes Desdemona as his “fair warrior.”

Let us briefly note the structure of the poem. It begins in the 10th year of his odyssey, the 7th year of his imprisonment with the Goddess Calypso. We learn this from a council of the Gods who discuss his fate and employ his son Telemachus to their directed ends. Odysseus doesn’t appear until Book V. His adventures during the first three years of his journey are told in flashback in Books 9 through 12. Each of these adventures are respectively parodied in Joyce’s Ulysses and described in detail in Stuart Gilbert’s Guide to Ulysses. Nabokov received Mr.Gilbert’s efforts of elucidation only with the greatest exception.

There is nothing more tedious than a protracted and sustained allegory based on a well-worn myth … One bore, a man called Stuart Gilbert, misled by a tongue-in-cheek list compiled by Joyce himself, found in every chapter the domination of one particular organ — the ear, the eye, the stomach, etc. — but we say “stop, thief: to the critic who deliberately transforms an artist’s subtle symbol into a pedant’s stale allegory — a thousand and one nights into a convention of shriners.

I will resist the temptation of comparing the adventures of an Irish Jew with those of a waylaid Greek. In Homer, as noted, the tales are told in flashback at the same dinner party at which the blind poet sings of the Fall of Troy. Here Homer, in the guise of the hero Odysseus, tells the fantastical story of the Odyssey’s wanderings. In Book Nine Homer can’t resist another self-compliment as Odysseus begins the woeful tale of his storied peregrination

How beautiful this is, to hear a minstrel

gifted as yours: a god he might be singing!

There is no boon in life more sweet, I say,

Than when a summer joy holds all the realm,

And banqueters sit listening to a harper

In a great hall, by rows of tables heaped

With bread and roast meat, while a steward goes

To dip up wine and brim your cups again.

Here is the flower of life, it seems to me!

But now you want to know my cause of sorrow —

And thereby give me cause for more.

What shall I

say first? What shall I keep until the end?

The gods have tried me in a thousand ways.

But first my name: let that be known to you,

and if I pull away from pitiless death,

friendship will bind us, though my land lies far

I am Laertes’ son, Odysseus.

Thus chronologically begins an epic that had famously commenced “In Media Res,” eight books earlier. Disguised as the blind poet Demodocus he had told the untold story of the Trojan Horse. Now as Odysseus he tells of the voyages of his Odyssey six years after his shipmates perished in his wine dark sea. Odysseus knows the gods must have their due. In both epics care is taken to propitiate them with suitable sacrifice. This “order” of the Homeric world is sidestepped only at the greatest peril. Shakespeare depicts his Ulysses as more cunning than courageous; nonetheless, on this point of order he gives the Greek one of the most apocalyptic speeches in the cannon:

Take but degree away, untune that string,

And hark what discord follows! Each thing meets

In mere oppugnancy. The bounded waters

Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores

And make asop of all this solid globe.

Strength should be lord of imbecility,

And the rude son should strike his father dead,

Force should be right; or rather right and wrong,

Between whose endless jar justices resides,

Should lose their names, and so should justice too.

Then everything includes itself in power,

Power into will, will into appetite;

And appetite, an universal wold,

So doubly seconded with will and power,

Must make perforce an universal prey,

And last eat up itself.

His shipmates bring about their own demise as they butcher “The Golden Cattle of the Sun.” Their boat is shattered by a thunderbolt and they are swallowed by the sea. Odysseus alone survives but seems destined to forever spin within a Charybdisian whirlpool. Mere days from home he is flung back into the sea by Poseidon’s unforgiving trident. Odysseus, like Sisyphus, seems condemned to a living death upon the mountains of the sea. The Odyssey is a metaphor for life. It is also a metaphor of madness. The banquet at which he tells his story contains within it the possibility of a literature’s first eternal regress. The tale includes the fact of its telling and hence could be eternally be retold. Of the thousand and one stories with which Scheherazade nightly distracts her husband from chopping of her lovely head, one of them contains the story of Scheherazade and so would eventually arrive at the tale being told.and hence, as well, proceed eternally. Homer senses this would be bad form and severely try the patience of his audience. As he approaches that juncture he says:

But why tell

The same tale I told last night in hall

To you and your lady? Those adventures

Made a long evening and I do not hold

With tiresome repetition of a story.

Only four of the Odyssey’s 24 books deal with the heroic and fantastical tales of his adventures. The poet seems more interested in setting the stage for his homecoming and his battle with the suitors of Penelope. He must have identified more with an old man’s longing than with youthful adventure modeled to some degree on story of Jason and the Argonauts, to which he alludes early in Book Twelve.

Two weeks ago I noted many classics that can directly trace their lineage to Homer. I will close today by reading a passage of a book that is still fresh in manuscript but is, as well, full of longing and longitude, owing much to the work we have been considering. The book is called Marathonas. Its author is William Winokur. It might find its way through the Another American Press if the current publishing world is indifferent to the power of its telling.. Sufficeth to say that the book is an epic. It is a tale of loss and redemption worthy of Wagner’s Dutchman, to which there is some small hint and resemblance. It is a dual story. Its ancient subtext is the story of Pheidippides and his heroic runs both preceding and following the battle of Marathon. Marathon is at the fabled crossroads of Western Civilization. Had the outcome been different, the Orient would have overwhelmed the West. What we glory as 5thcentury Greece would not have existed. The ancient story is serialized at the beginning of each chapter and is eagerly anticipated as each chapter concludes.

The modern story concerns a pair of odysseys — one by the female narrator and the other by an old man of the author’s actual acquaintance. Each of these odysseys will end upon the plain of Marathonas, twenty-five hundred years from the earlier enactment of the drama. After the death of her father the narrator seeks out a remembered friend of the family. He is a retired Classics professor who had once known fame in the Olympics. As a little girl she had known the professor as “Uncle” Ion Theodore. She tracks her unrelated “uncle” to a rest home – old, neglected and staring lost in the labyrinthine dementia of ill heath and old age.

The vision that I had imagined of an instantaneously touching reunion was quickly dispelled. He sat almost catatonically, staring out his window as I gazed upon him for the first time in over thirty years.

I felt the suffocation from imagining so expansive a life reduced to occupying half of a 14′ X 18′ room. His only connection with that former world was through two small windows. It was a depressing view, made worse by the wire mesh and the gray drizzle, which blanketed the cityscape beyond.

I momentarily saw what he saw — or at least looked at: rooftops; an urban collage of AC condensers, rusting water tanks and cluttered antennae. Eyes that had once seen so much of the world now looked north over a little corner of Queens. And the look to the north was undoubtedly the loneliest of views — with neither sunrises nor sunsets — and the least amount of daytime sun.

He sat motionless across from me like a relic buried in a dusty basement of a museum. For an instant he turned his head as if to see where the sound of my voice was coming from, but then dropped back into his vacant reverie.

A gray and threatening afternoon had precipitated a premature darkness, which exacerbated the already drab atmosphere of the room. Low flying clouds unleashed their torrent of freezing rain and buffeting wind. It blew with such force, hurling sheets of water that splattered against the window, and rattling them in their sashes.

A book on Ion’s shelf caused my mind to drift back to one of the stories that he had once told me. It was the reunion of Odysseus and Penelope after their twenty-year separation. The passage had always been my favorite part of the story. I seized the volume.

It was a very old edition bound in leather, obviously by hand, in what by now had turned a faded light brown color. Oils from human hands had permanently left their mark. The title on the cover and the spine were embossed in gold leaf. Its pages had frayed and yellowed. There was the following handwritten inscription to

My fellow Marathoner,

As you carry our Olympic torch, do not forget the valiant ancestors who have preceded you — and the heroes yet come, to whom you will pass the eternal flame.

Your teacher and friend ..

Spyridon L. 1st August 1936

Suddenly the meaning of the old athletic photo on the wall came into focus.

August, 1936. Berlin. The torch of Olympia.

I can recall the details of what followed with acute precision, thus my temporal recounting of the sequence of the events is easy. However, I was so overwhelmed by emotions that conveying the gravity of what I experienced is virtually impossible.

He was still looking out the window as I sat on the edge of his bed. I felt like a shadow in the room. Searching near the end of the book, I swiftly, but carefully turned the pages until I found what I was looking for. I looked over the spaciously and elegantly typeset lines, waiting for the words to leap off the flat page and become the colorful images that Ion had painted decades ago. I silently read this scene and, then, quite unexpectedly, began a soft utterance of the one that followed.

“Then Odysseus in turn melted, and wept as he clasped his dear and faithful wife to his bosom. As the sight of land is welcome to men who are swimming towards the shore, when Poseidon has wrecked their ship with the fury of winds and waves — a few alone reach the land, and these, covered with brine, are thankful when they find themselves on firm ground and out of danger — even so was her husband welcome to her as she looked upon him, and she could not tear her two fair arms from about his neck.”

I had stopped and bit my lip and was startled to hear the passage continue but through another voice.

“Indeed they would have gone on indulging their sorrow till rosy-fingered morn appeared, had not Athena determined otherwise…”

At first I though my memory and imagination had projected Ion’s voice, but there he sat, focused on me with his life ablaze in eyes that had also begun to well. A wide, inviting smile spread across his face, almost masking the tear that was rolling down his cheek. Swift-footed Ion Theodore had returned from Ilium’s distant shores.

HOMER: A QUEEN’S PASSION

Concerning Queens and their passions, the most famous is, of course, Helen. Despite her great beauty, the valor of the Trojans to keep her and the exploits of the Greeks attempting to secure her return — she is rarely thought an innocent. Imagine Patty Hearst inscribed upon an ancient urn. In Homer, Helen thinks herself a whore and in Virgil, Aeneas itches to put her to the blade.

Agamemnon’s Queen commits her adultery in circumstance of less extenuation. The horrors of which Clytmestrya and family sup are the courses of a curse served nightly at the house of Atreus. King Atreus, at the height of a royal pique, slew his brother’s sons and fed them to his sibling in a ghastly pie. Even the gods were appalled. The sons of Atreus, Menelaus and Agamemnon, (and through them all of Greece), became inextricably entwined within their father’s crime.

In Greek drama, as in the work of Eugene O’Neill, its American counterpart, payback is on the installment plan and threads itself through many generations. Paris — precipitating the Iliad and a decade of war; kidnaps Menelaus’ wife; she whose face will launch a thousand ships. Agamemnon sacrifices his own daughter, Iphigenia so those same said sails will catch a desperate wind, heretofore denied. Upon return from Troy his wife’s lover, Aegisthus — surviving brother of those who like the 4 and twenty blackbirds were put within a pie, slits Agamemnon from nape to neck upon an altar stone. Orestes avenges his father by murdering his mother and so on and on the telling blood will flow. Only in the court of David in a pair of centuries yet to fall will history record as sordid an intrigue.

The last queen we will consider is the only unsullied of the three. Queen Dido of Carthage doesn’t figure in Homer but rather in Homer’s greatest enthusiast, Publius Vergilius Maro or more familiarly, Vergil. The great legacy of Rome’s thousand years was the gift of Greece, whose culture it had assimilated. In architecture, art and literature, Rome closely followed the lead of its superior teacher. In conquering Greece, Rome allowed Greece the more lasting empire.

Virgil was so enamoured of Homer that he combined both the Iliad and the Odyssey into the structure of his Aeneid. He does, however, reverse the order of the stories and comports Aeneas with his wanderings in the first six books of the poem and with his war stories in the last six of the twelve that comprise the epic.

As in the Odyssey, the story begins “In Media Res” and is told in flash back. After the sack of Troy, Aeneas and followers set off to found a city that is destined for immortality. Vergil’s prescience is aided by being composed for the court of Augustus Ceasar who rules the Roman world in the generation preceding the birth of Christ.

The Aeneid chronicles much more of the Trojan Horse episode than we find in Homer. There is palpable horror in Virgil’s description of the fall of Troy and the murder of its king.

 

What was the fate of Priam, you may ask.

Seeing his city captive, seeing his won

Royal portals rent apart, his enemies

In the inner rooms, the old man uselessly

Put on his shoulders, shaking with old age,

Armor unused for years, belted a sword on,

And made for the massed enemy to die.

Now see Polites, one of Priam’s sons, escaped

From Pyrrus’ butchery and on the run

Through enemies and spears, down colonnades,

Through empty courtyards, wounded. Close behind

Comes Pyrrhus burning for the death-stroke: has him,

Catches him now, and lunges with the spear.

The boy has reached his parents, and before them

Goes down, pouring out his life with blood.

Now Priam, in the very midst of death,

Would neither hold his peace or spare his anger.

To the Altar Pyrrus dragged the old king slipping

In the pooled blood of his son,

He took him by the hair with his left hand.

The sword flashed in his right; up to the hilt

He thrust it in his body.

 

That was the end

Of Priam’s age, the doom that took him off,

With Troy in flames before his eyes, his towers

Headlong fallen — he that in other days

Had ruled in pride so many land and peoples,

The power of Asia;

On the distant shore

The vast trunk headless lies without a name.

Note that the Virgil’s description of Priam also applies to Troy. Recalling another of the mighty fallen to a hapless fate, note Shakespeare’s Harry on the death of Hotspur:

When that this body did contain a spirit

a kingdom for it was too small a bound,

now two paces of the vilest earth is room enough

Shakespeare borrowed many of the portents in Julius Caesar and Macbeth from the classics we have been considering. The most famous portent of them all is that which persuades the Trojans to their doom.

It will be remembered that the priest Laocoon was wary of Greeks bearing gifts, especially one as ominous as the abandoned wooden horse. The priest had hurled a spear into the horse’s flank in disapproval. The following day during a sacrificial service to his gods he learned that he and sons were to be the offering split upon the stone. Two giant serpents swallow the priest and his star crossed sons.

Now came the sound of thrashed seawater foaming;

Now they were on dry land, and we could see

Their burning eyes, fiery and suffused with blood,

They slid until they reached Laocoon.

Each snake enveloped one of his two boys,

Twining about and feeding on the body.

Next they ensnared the priestly man, Laocoon.

Drenched in slime, his head-bands black with venom,

Sending to heaven his appalling cries

Like a slashed bull escaping from an altar,

The fumbled axe shrugged off. The pair of snakes

Now flowed away …

Persuaded by the portent, the populace drags the gift inside the city and seals its fabled doom. Aeneas’ mother, the goddess Venus, pleads with her son to flee. In a surreal moment of invention, Virgil has the goddess remove the “films” from his mortal eyes so he might see the true warp and woof of the fated world.

Look: where you see high masonry thrown down,

Stone torn from stone, with the billowing smoke and dust,

Neptune is shaking from their beds the walls

That his great trident pried up, undermining,

Toppling the whole city down.

 And look:

Juno in all her savagery holds

The Scaean Gates, and raging in steel armor

Calls her allied army from the ships.

Up on the citadel — turn, look — Pallas Trionia

Couched in a stormcloud, lightening with her Gorgon!

The Father himself empowers the Danaans,

Urging assaulting gods on the defenders.

Away, child; put an end to toiling so.

I shall be near, to see you safely home.

The founding of Rome is a deferred event. Aeneas will visit some of the vaunted haunts of Homer’s Odyssey before setting course for Latium. The Cyclops is once again engaged and other phantasmagorias of Homer’s voyage reviewed.

Dido listens to these tales as intently as King Alcinous had earlier entertained those told by Odysseus. The purpose of each was to provide a narrative to bring the reader up to the current chronology of the story. In Virgil it serves the additional purpose of inspiring Dido’s love for Aeneas.

For Berlioz the exigencies of Homer and Virgil are spiritual. The demands of the flesh are tempered with a classical devotion that deepens the concluding tragedy. Here now is Berlioz;’ sublime Act 4 Septet. Aeneas, Dido and her court reflect on the beauty of the evening and the stillness of the sea.

Gradually the court disperses leaving the Queen and Virgil’s hero alone in the moonlight to sing one of the three or four loveliest love-duets of the 19th century. At the conclusion of the duet the stern voice of Mercury is heard to intone the will of the gods:

Italie, Italie, Italie!

Hear now the classical restraints that the most romantic of composers brings to Aeneas and the passion of a Queen.

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