Monday, May 28, 2012

T. S. Eliot's dark night: East Coker, III

T. S. Eliot. Four Quartets. You might have seen me going on about it before.

Today, on this pentecostal national holiday, I got to thinking about this excerpt from "East Coker", the second of four Quartets. There is something incredibly restful and silent and vast about this section of the poem. The darkness Eliot evokes digs itself into me, creating space where it goes.

Emptiness and darkness - we all carry it within. And I don't mean in a negative way. From emptiness comes everything, as we know from the Big Bang.


O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark, 
The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant, 
The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters, 
The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers, 
Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees, 
Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark, 
And dark the Sun and Moon, and the Almanach de Gotha 
And the Stock Exchange Gazette, the Directory of Directors, 
And cold the sense and lost the motive of action. 
And we all go with them, into the silent funeral, 
Nobody's funeral, for there is no one to bury. 
I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you 
Which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre, 
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed 
With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness, 
And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama 
And the bold imposing facade are all being rolled away— 
Or as, when an underground train, in the tube, stops too long between stations 
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence 
And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen 
Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about; 
Or when, under ether, the mind is conscious but conscious of nothing— 
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope 
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love, 
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith 
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting. 
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought: 
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing. 
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning. 
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry, 
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy 
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony 
Of death and birth. 

You say I am repeating 
Something I have said before. I shall say it again. 
Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there, 
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not, 
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy. 
In order to arrive at what you do not know 
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance. 
In order to possess what you do not possess 
You must go by the way of dispossession. 
In order to arrive at what you are not 
You must go through the way in which you are not. 
And what you do not know is the only thing you know 
And what you own is what you do not own 
And where you are is where you are not.  


"Nobody's funeral, for there is no one to bury"
"I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you / Which shall be the darkness of God"
"Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought / So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing"

These are paradoxical sentences, but they are opening a well of wisdom in us, I find. We understand them, as we are humans, not machines working on algorithms and binary codes.

I am sinking into this text heart, hue and hide. "The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant" - this always hurls me into a great vastness and makes my chest light up like a starry night's sky. The darkness, emptiness, space and light all at once.

"Oh dark dark dark. They all go into the dark" - yes, we do. And how I cherish it, how restful it is. I particularily like how Eliot doesn't use commas between the three darks, and how he stops there before starting a new sentence. It gives the theme of this section, I think. Quiet yet deep.

The whole of the last bit is only paradox. Perhaps it tells you something anyway?
I am particularly drawn to "In order to arrive at what you are not / You must go through the way in which you are not". It gives me the sense that I am already here, already in place, already arrived at what I believe I am searching for. It gives me glimpses of timelessness and a vastness completely unrelated to space; something outside of it all. And this something is in us all along, and we are in it. 

If you want a musical companion to this dark, silent and deep piece, try Bach's
Chaconne. (Not while you're reading, perhaps, but after. Don't want to spoil the rhythm of Eliot's words! - Or the simplicity and complexity of this everunfolding piece of music.)

It surely opens up something in me.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Jorge Luis Borges: "Everness"


One thing does not exist: Oblivion.
God saves the metal and he saves the dross,
And his prophetic memory guards from loss
The moons to come, and those of evenings gone.
Everything is: the shadows in the glass
Which, in between the day’s two twilights, you
Have scattered by the thousands, or shall strew
Henceforward in the mirrors that you pass.
And everything is part of that diverse
Crystalline memory, the universe;
Whoever through its endless mazes wanders
Hears door on door click shut behind his stride,
And only from the sunset’s farther side
Shall view at last the Archetypes and the Splendors.

Translated from Spanish by Richard Wilbur

This poem was given me by Jacques Felix, in his comment to my previous post on Borges' The Immortal. It bears the mark of Borges, all right. The first line unlocks the door into the Borgesian universe. 

Oblivion does not exist, because the universe is a memory, a consciousness. We are parts of the universe, meaning we are the universe itself, and are expressions of that memory, that consciousness. "Everything is".

The blankness of oblivion is mirrored by the sparkly, shiny image of the stars and moon, by mirrors themselves, and by crystal - "[a]nd everything is part of that diverse / Crystalline memory, the universe".

And the last line brings back the everness: the Archetypes and the Splendors.

This poem is so simple yet so intricate and deep. Time is nowhere - the universe is a memory, a consciousness.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Jorge Luis Borges: "The Immortal"

By Gisela Giardino
Reading Borges' ficciones is always rewarding in one way or other. I picked up his Collected Fictions one night, guided by I don't know what. Following my own hunch, I turned to the collection of ficciones called The Aleph. In this book one piece was called "The Immortal". This seemed to me the place to dive down that night.

One paragraph I read two times, slowly. In many ways this felt like the summary of the story, the  source of it, in a tone that to me feels like Borges is speaking directly to us, almost without the literary filter. It gives a sense of him stepping out of the role of narrator on the page, and into that of conveyor of depth.

I felt so tempted to type the whole paragraph here that I am actually going to do it, for those of you with patience for more than a poem. I will still put it out for everyone to see. Gems should be shared.

Here goes:

"There is nothing very remarkable about being immortal; with the exception of mankind, all creatures are immortal, for they know nothing of death. What is divine, terrible and incomprehensible is to know oneself immortal. I have noticed that in spite of religion, the conviction as to one's own immortality is extraordinarily rare. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all profess belief in immortality, but the veneration paid to the first century of life is proof that they truly believe only in those hundred years, for they destine all the rest, throughout eternity, to rewarding or punishing what one did when alive. In my view, the Wheel conceived by certain religions in Hindustan is much more plausible; on that Wheel, which has neither end nor beginning, each life is the effect of the previous life and engenderer of the next, yet no one life determines the whole... Taught by centuries of living, the republic of immortal men had achieved a perfection of tolerance, almost of disdain. They knew that over an infinitely long span of time, all things happen to all men. As reward for his past and future virtues, every man merited every kindness -- yet also every betrayal, as reward for his past and future iniquities. Much as the way in games of chance, heads and tails tend to even out, so cleverness and dullness cancel and correct each other. Perhaps the rude poem of El Cid is the counterweight demanded by a single epithet of the Eclogues or a maxim from Heraclitus. The most fleeting thought obeys an invisible plan, and may crown, or inaugurate, a secret design. I know of men who have done evil in order that good may come of it in future centuries, or may already have come of it in centuries past... Viewed in that way, all our acts are just, though also unimportant. There are no spiritual or intellectual merits. Homer composed the Odyssey; given infinite time, with infinite circumstances and changes, it is impossible that the Odyssey should not be composed at least once. No one is someone; a single immortal man is all men. Like Cornelius Agrippa, I am god, hero, philosopher, demon, and world -- which is a long-winded way of saying that I am not."


The narrator in this story is starting out as a Roman soldier. He travels through centuries and almost mistakenly attains immortality. Along the road he meets a man he first takes to be a simpleton, without language or the means of symbolic representation. After a while it turns out this man is Homer. This gives the text at the same time a heavy literary frame as well as a timeless one. Homer is more a mythical figure than that of a real man; no one knows whether he ever existed, or if his name is the expression of a conglomerate of storytellers and writers; you could even say Homer is a personification of human imagination or inventiveness. In a way Homer is something of an archetype, making out a solid brick in our (at least Western) cultural edifice. The ideas conveyed in "The Immortal" have that same quality of timelessness (hooha) and durability or imperishability as its Homeric counterpart, seeming to spring from common human ground.

Borges strays into rich waters here. He is for example touching into the midst of buddhism: The expression "I am not" points directly to the emptiness of phenomena, or doctrine of emptiness (shunyata), which is central especially in the Mahayana direction within Buddhism. I am not suggesting that Borges is hinting at Buddhism as such, but that he seems to be tapping into the same well of truth. And exactly this, that he is looking deeply into himself, and at our history and literature and bringing these theses out with him, which are shared with old and thoroughly worked-through schools of thought and insight gives me the impression of a man with great insight into humanity and the fabric of reality. Perhaps more important still: This passage rings true with me.

The piece gives me a sense of a great balance. In the long run, things even out: "over an infinitely long span of time, all things happen to all men [...] all our acts are just, though also unimportant. There are no spiritual or intellectual merits". A balance is conveyed, between important–unimportant, worthy–unworthy, meaning–emptiness without it leaving me as a reader with the feeling of insignificance. This seems to me to be the truth of things. And, paradoxically, at the same time all we do is immensely important. We are expressions of something deep, we all carry significance in one way or other, just by living and adding to the great web of life in which we are all interconnected. The question lying underneath it all: "what is life?" This will continue to be a mystery to me and no doubt the following generations of humans. A cycle of life, certainly (like the Hindu wheel Borges is referring to), but how does it start, or does it start or end? In a way these questions aren't that important. That we live, and give our lives the meaning we feel is most fulfilling for ourselves and the rest of life around us is certainly a good beginning. 

Rarely have I read a short text that gives me a such a broad scope of existence, also beyond human life.(How can you separate human life from life itself?)

In a way the opening and closing sentences sum up the content of this text. "There is nothing very remarkable about being immortal; with the exception of mankind, all creatures are immortal, for they know nothing of death." And the closing sentences: "No one is someone; a single immortal man is all men. Like Cornelius Agrippa, I am god, hero, philosopher, demon, and world -- which is a long-winded way of saying that I am not." Immortality as an idea has at all times been very attractive to humans. But how thoroughly thought through is this wish, I wonder. Reading Borges' The Immortal might alter or purge the urge for it.

Being human is irrevocably linked to mortality. That has its meaning.

By Sturt Krygsman, The Australian

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Atonement: The writer's point of view

In the novel Atonement by Ian McEwan the main character is Briony, who at age 13 is a budding author. She already thinks like a writer most of the time, seeing plots for novels and stories in the family life and nature surrounding her. The world to her is a place of inspiration for something she can later put down in writing. In a way her life is lived more on the page than in her direct contact with the surrounding world.

The whole book is circling around the theme of writing, the word as expression, or even the word as a more real reality than reality. I think this is something many bookworms can recognise, readers and writers alike - the world of fiction and literature is the preferred place to hang out. More safe and controlled perhaps, but also a place where there is room for high ideals and strong, fatelike friendships, fantastic actions and heart-wrenching sacrifices in the name of love, humanity, truth etc. Of course literature is mirroring to some extent the world the authors live in, but still - a different place to reality.

A favourite moment of mine in this novel is Briony's literary culmination when she has had an awakening and is being hurled out of childhood, all through seeing a scene in the park surrounding her house, involving her sister Cecilia and the family friend Robbie. This scene is the structural hub of the novel. Briony is too young and misinterprets what she sees - a feud between two near adults who have known each other their whole lives and who are beginning to understand that they love each other. Briony sees them argue over a broken vase in front of the fountain on the lawn, and interprets the whole situation wrongly. She sees Robbie threatening Cecilia (he is actually trying to stop her from stepping on the broken bits of the vase) and is convinced she has to protect her sister from this man. Her suspicion is later galvanised when Robbie uses Briony as a messenger in bringing Cecilia a letter. The letter was supposed to be an apology for his behaviour around Cecilia lately, with him hinting at his new feelings towards her. But of course McEwan has him putting the wrong note into the envelope, one including a word Briony has never heard before but immediately understands as belonging to the just-discovered world of grown-up dealings; and of course he has Briony, the writer who needs to know everything about the world around her, reading it. ("The smooth-hollowed, partly enclosed forms of its first three letters were as clear as a set of anatomical drawings.") The scene and the word is spiralling her into a different existence.

Anyway, a passage I've always loved in this novel, culminating in a single sentence, is where Briony is writing down her opening line of a story after seeing the fountain scene and understanding that she must enter a new level of writing and existing; enter the grown-up world and write about more serious layers of reality than fairytale princesses and storylines always ending in good marriages.

She sits in front of the white paper, pen in hand, and after considering everything she has seen and started to understand that day, writes "There was an old lady who swallowed a fly".

This one sentence, seemingly a leap from the context she is consumed in, to me says a lot about what writing is. From one kind of material springs a whole new material or world, somehow related to its origins, but often very different in form and content (if 'origins' is a word possible to use around the writing process). Creativity doesn't move in orderly autobahn-lines, it makes the most surprising leaps, leading us to completely new places with strange and fresh connections to the world we know and the evergrowing literary geography.

Not magic, only the endless possibilities of human imagination.