May 25, 2013

Tom Cheetham - Reading the Wilderness


Source: Within This Darkness: Incarnation, Theophany and the Primordial Revelationby Tom Cheetham. Section: Reading the Wilderness. Website: Esoterica.

Note: The parts highlighted in bold are what I find most interesting. But I recommend you read the whole thing at the link above.  

Reading the Wilderness
By Tom Cheetham

We have lived too long within a world of our own making. We have lived too long within a language of the merely human. To keep our internals open we have to learn to read and write ourselves out of ourselves, and uncurl ourselves back into the world This is the task set to us by Khidr, the Green Man, the hermeneut at the meeting place of the two seas. Language is not a tool for communication that belongs to us. Language is not an exclusively human ability at all. It is a field of meanings and intentions that we inhabit. Human language grows out of the world itself. We speak because the world speaks. And because language and the symbols upon which it depends are the Breath of God, it has the power to penetrate to the very heart of things. Language in the broadest sense is creative because the world was spoken into being. Because of this, reading can be, in the words of Ivan Illich, "an ontologically remedial technique," a means of transformation, of gnosis.

It seems clear the habits and skills of literate culture are being lost. We may indeed be entering a time that George Steiner calls the After-word. The habits of reading and the culture of the book are on the decline in modern technological society. Both Steiner and Illich have somewhat wistfully proposed that perhaps as the universities turn themselves into the handmaidens of business, technology and the military, we may yet preserve cells of humanist resistance, "Houses of Reading" where the habits of mind of a bookish civilization can endure. I believe with them that something like this is essential for the preservation of our humanity, essential if we are to take a stand against the ongoing violations that are the annihilation of the person and the rape of nature. But it is not enough. Khidr is not a humanist. He is a messenger from far beyond. The world that he opens up to us is infinite. He announces that the cosmos itself is a "house of reading" - it is the Primordial Temple of the Word. The guardians of high culture, of literature and the humanities, have for a long time not read this book at all. They have been too curved in upon themselves. And when it is read, as it is by natural scientists, it is too often only in the most abstract languages of domination and control. The cultures of the After-word will not just be illiterate, but also de-natured, dysfunctional and condemned to occupy the world of Second Nature that Giegerich describes.

There are as many kinds of literature as there are kinds of attentiveness. In 1907 the unorthodox psychoanalyst and physician Georg Groddeck made a distinction that is useful here. He said that there is a kind of poetry, of literature, that seems to come from inside human consciousness and brings us "news of the human mind." Groddeck suggested that European culture after around 1600 became increasingly absorbed in this kind of attention, and that the resulting literature, having reached its apogee in Shakespeare, is now in decline and becoming more extreme in order to compensate for its essential bankruptcy. At the opposite end of the spectrum is a kind of poetics based on attentiveness, not to the human, but to the more-than-human, to what Groddeck calls Gott-natur, a divine instinctuality. This kind of attentiveness and the art it produces bring us "news of the universe." Groddeck found this attention sometimes in Goethe. He thought it represented something new beginning in the West. I hope he was right, and I think it is here that we may look for an element of the counter-technology we are seeking. Robert Bly comments: "Literature and art that attempt to reopen the channels between human beings and nature, and to make our fear of her dark side conscious, help us to see her without fear, hatred or distance."

What are the techniques we need? We already know that we must be willing to allow the world to speak, willing to seek correspondences between human consciousness and what we might call the consciousnesses in the natural world. We already know that this means being open to images as the theater of the world. To open ourselves to the news of the universe requires a poet's hermeneutic attentiveness, and this requires some disciplines we are sorely lacking. We do need something like "houses of reading," to serve as cells of resistance to the dominion of those who control the post-literate culture of the wholly un-natural. But these would be half-open dwellings, opening outward beyond the confines of the ego, beyond the range of human culture and onto the mysteries of the more-than-human world. To fully understand the significance of the task we set ourselves, we must recognize with Jung that these untamed regions do not correspond to the boundaries we have set up between the inner and the outer. The wild is not identical with the world of physical nature. And the tame is not restricted to a protected enclave within the human person.

The reading of the world that we need to learn has to be active and engaged. It must take the form of a dialogue that begins with a careful listening to the voices that speak to us from beyond the bounds of the known. We have to engage in a gentle kind of call and response, a reading that calls in turn for speech, and perhaps for writing, or other kinds of making, and that always turns back to listening. We can learn aspects of this kind of discipline from children, from certain kinds of natural science, and from poets and artists. George Steiner's profound study of the grounds of meaning in language and art are of tremendous importance here. We need a theory, a theoria, not just of meaning in poetry and literature, but in the perception of all reality, and Steiner's suggestions are fertile. He recalls to us yet again the roots of theoria. "It tells," he writes,
of concentrated insight, of an act of contemplation focused patiently on its object. But it pertains also to the deeds of witness performed by the legates sent, in solemn embassy, to observe the oracles spoken or the rites performed at the sacred Attic games. A 'theorist' or 'theoretician' is one who is disciplined in observance, a term itself charged with a twofold significance of intellectual-sensory perception and religious or ritual conductThus theory is inhabited by truth when it contemplates its object unwaveringly and when, in the observant process of such contemplation, it beholds, it takes grasp of the often confused and contingentimages, associations, suggestions, possibly erroneous, to which the object gives rise.
All truth in perception begins with this "theory." This kind of attention is intensely relational because it is felt, it is sensuous, it is embodied. The encounter with intelligible form as presented in art requires that the object be experienced as a real presence, and in this encounter the "poem, the statue, the sonata are not so much read, viewed or heard as they are lived." Art thus "makes sense" of the world. But aesthesis refers to the perception of the world we have not made, as much as to the world that we have. We who are so removed from the more-than-human need this kind of contact with the primordial grounds of life. And crucially, Steiner understands that the perception of any meaningful form is grounded in the encounter with a real presence, a transcendence, beyond the human. The perception of meaning in art, and we can extend this to the world as a whole, is based upon the "axiom of dialogue." We are always, when we are truly paying attention, in communion with what lies beyond us. Steiner writes, "it is, I believe, poetry, art and music which relate us most directly to that in being which is not ours." As we begin to learn what it may mean to read and write the world, to hear the news of the universe, we would do well to hear these words.

Another feature of the reading we must learn is that it is attentive to place. Bodies occupy places, they are located. This we know from the ecologists. You need to know where you live: to know the trees, the flowers, the bedrock on which we build, where the water comes from and where it goes. But human beings are not only located; they locate. Corbin says
"Orientation is a primary phenomenon of our presence in the world. A human presence has the property of spatializing a world around it, and this phenomenon implies a certain relationship of man and the world, his world, this relationship being determined by the very mode of his presence in the world."
Both of these aspects of our place in the world must be given their due. The inner and the outer interpenetrate. You cannot know who you are without knowing the terrain you occupy; and yet you cannot truly know what your orientation is within that terrain without knowing who you are. The ecologists tell us we are defined by our world. Corbin tells us that our world is who we are. Our inner landscapes define our orientation in the world just as surely as the geographies of the outer world. The boundaries of the world as we have learned to see them are disrupted. To realize this is threatening. There are few safe havens in this task of being human.

To cope with the threats and challenges of the encounter with the worlds beyond the ego, what we would learn in the houses of reading would have to include an ancient virtue: ascesis. There are three aspects of this discipline to consider. First, an asceticism of the body. Not the asceticism that Corbin so vehemently attacks, the furious, rejecting asceticism that creates a chasm between the object of love and the transcendence that is imminent in it. This asceticism cannot be incompatible with a passionate love for the things of this world. An asceticism of the body would, for us in the developed world, mean a refusal to participate in the excesses of the consumer culture. But this is really the easy part. Ivan Illich uses ascesis in another sense to mean "courageous, disciplined, self-critical renunciation, accomplished in community." He proposes an "epistemological ascesis," a purging of corrupting concepts that give reality to abstraction, and tear us away from our roots in embodied, local, communal realities. When we live immersed in the modern world of generalized communication, where every natural boundary is violated, we are constantly assaulted by images, messages, ideas, all of them having their origins outside the boundaries of our responsibility and control, all of them having been crafted by someone for some purpose of their own, and all of which in the end serve to manipulate us. The profound and magical news of the human that Shakespeare once brought, has now degenerated, at the end of literacy, into advertising and mere "news."

Epistemological ascesis cannot entail a refusal to entertain novelty or new ideas. But I have lived at the mercy of the tides of intellectual fashion for long enough to know that the tremendously difficult task of renunciation is based on an ability to discriminate and to refuse - to have a keen and attentive sense for what is destructive, dangerous and dominating. This requires a matured sense of freedom and beauty. Is this teachable? Is it "art?" Perhaps it is the basis for art; an art we have to learn in our half-open dwellings of reading.

The third aspect of ascesis is poverty: having little, needing little, living rooted in the mystical poverty of the dervish. It is only through realizing the poverty of the ego that attentiveness to the news of the universe is possible. There is an intimate connection between ascesis and aesthesis. Each requires subtle discrimination, silent attention with all the senses, and careful, watchful feeling. These operations can best be accomplished in spaces that open freely onto mystery and the unknown, that open onto darkness. Remember Sarah Coakley's call for an ascesis appropriate to contemplative, wordless prayer, that quiet vulnerable waiting that opens onto the dark knowing beyond speech.

The psyche, the anima mundi that we find in nature often has this open-ness to darkness evident as a kind of sadness. Bly writes "The psychic tone of nature strikes many people as having some melancholy in it. The tone of nature is related to what human beings call 'grief,' what Lucretius calls 'the tears of things,' what in Japanese poetry is called mono no aware, the slender sadness." We have encountered this before in Mir Damad's perception of the silent clamor of beings in their metaphysical distress. All things are only as made-to-be. All things exist in poverty and it is this that opens them to mystery, to the angelic function of beings. That is their ability to lead beyond themselves as symbols revealed to the lover, to the hermeneut, as tokens of transcendence. This may well be another way of saying that all things have some kind of consciousness, that there is a vast web of images tying together the inner and the outer. As consciousness is to supraconsciousness, so being is to mystical poverty.

The hermeneut and the lover, you see, must keep the darkness very close, always. For it is the function of the Absconditum, the forever and necessarily hidden God, to open the world for us at each instant, making everything new. The ever-present "moment of nothingness" hovering just beyond the horizon insures the pervasive transcendence of the world. Only the Deus absconditum guarantees the eternal dissolution of dogmas and underlies the necessity of a "permanent hermeneutics," the unending reading and writing of the soul of the world, the ceaseless uncovering of harmonies between the worlds within and the worlds without. This provides the setting for the human journey towards itself and the world in which it is truly at home. We are not spirits lost in a world of matter. Both spirit and matter are abstractions born of reason. Closer to the mysterious and substantial truth is Corbin's image of a soul seeking its Angel, in an endless quest through immense landscapes in a cosmos that knows no bounds.