Part II (Medieval Times)
Most of the time for me, the world and experience seem without a mystical aura. Things appear to be just how they appear to be – phenomena and mental states in prosaic time and space. But there are other moments that slip up on me, moments in which an extraordinary element comes or seems to come to presence. Those rare occasions present themselves as detached from regular being, as receding into deeper being.
When I was a child, the fence on the east side of our house was covered in summer with red climbing roses. I still remember how odd it was to stare into those blooms. It seemed as if a different, distant key were being sounded in form and substance, in the “accident” of that pulsing color. Many years later, I would happen upon forest scenes in Arkansas, while driving past. For the briefest time – somehow multiplying its duration exponentially – those passing scenes took on a visionary aspect. An archaic and weary light, slanting through pine trees, caused the ocher grass and relics of fallen branches to glow with an unearthly radiance.
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Behind the lyrics and within the music of Hildegard von Bingen (12th century) lingers the ambiance of Plotinus’s visionary teachings.
Love abounds in all / From the lowest to the highest stars….
Francis of Assisi (13th century) wrote Canticle of the Sun. Experiencing its Neoplatonic eeriness is a way to become eerie oneself for a while.
Praise for the fire who gives us his light,
the warmth of the sun to brighten our night;
he dances with joy,
his spirit so bright, he sings of you.
Mystical aspiration was clothed in a poetics of Eros by Hadewijch of Brabant (13th century).
from Of Great Love in High Thoughts
This is a great wonder, beyond understanding
Love’s giving and her taking.
When she gives comfort
the tender fruits tremble on the vine.
I bid and beg of Love
that she open noble hearts
and teach them to sing her song:
the low notes of fear and the heights of hope.
Comfort and cruelty in one person
that’s the true taste of love.
Were wise Solomon still living
He could not unravel such a high thing.
No sermon can explain it
The song surpasses all notes.
The time I spent going after fishes
Hid in itself its own reward.
trans. from the Dutch by Grace Andreacchi i
And yet this impossibility — this aporetic lack and the impossible attempt to fulfill it — is precisely what leads Hadewijch to the heights of poetic sublimity. ii
Neoplatonism also spread to the east. In Persia, Rumi (13th century) wrote poems that found a way to capture experience and presence infused with a numinous, timeless relish.
Walking Out of the Treasury Building
Lord, the air smells good today, straight from the mysteries
within the inner courts of God.
A grace like new clothes thrown
across the garden, free medicine for everybody.
The trees in their prayer, the birds in praise,
the first blue violets kneeling.
Whatever came from Being is caught up in being, drunkenly
forgetting the way back.
One man turns and sees his birth
pulling separate from the others.
He fills with light, and colors change here.
He drinks it in, and everyone is wonderfully
drunk, shining with his beauty.
I can’t really say that I feel the pain of others,
when the whole world seems so sweet.
Face to face with a lion, I grow leonine.
Walking out of the Treasury Building, I feel generous.
Anyone still sober in this weather must be afraid
of people, afraid what they’ll say.
Enough talking. If we eat too much greenery,
we’re going to smell like vegetables. iii
The Middle Ages of Europe were Christian centuries. Superstition and intellection coalesced as the dominant form of thought and being. Thomas Aquinas (13th century) re-vivified the works of Plato and Aristotle, appropriating them in order to inject rationality into religion. This compulsion to philosophically ground belief led to the quiet, ink-filled adventure of scholasticism. Dogma soon stiffened the air, and heretical imaginations were denied unregulated breathing space. But the renegade spirit persisted in that era. It envisioned things – especially Christian things – through the old eyes of Plotinus.
In Italy, Dante (14th century) was inspired to write the Divine Comedy. The last part — “Paradise” – is a sublimation of certain esoteric fragrances, vibrations, echoes.
As in the clear, still water of a pond
the fish are lured toward something fallen in,
as if they knew it was their food – so here,
I saw more than a thousand splendors move
toward us, and in each one I heard the cry:
“Behold one more who will increase our love.”
And as they came nearer to us, the joy
of each soul there was rendered visible
in the clear luminance with which it shone. iv
Also situated in that era of scholastics and monasteries was Meister Eckhart (14th century). There is dispute as to whether or not he was a scholastic proper or also partly a mystic. His writings affected his century and future ones. Standing out from his more orthodox reflections are the ideas about Godhead and negative theology. A Godness beyond God and the nothingness that can be said about God are both ways of thinking with roots in Plotinus and Neoplatonism. Eckhart’s language beyond language surely enhanced the texture and deepened the pool of later poetic capability – allusion and metaphor took on the qualities of almost hypnotic suggestion.
Though it may be called a nescience, and unknowing, yet there is in it more than all knowing and understanding without it; for this unknowing lures and attracts you from all understood things, and from yourself as well. v
In Medieval Spain, the Jewish Zohar appeared under uncertain provenance. Did it spring from the 1st-century oral transmissions of Simeon bar Yochai in ancient Israel? Were those oral transmissions written down by persons unknown, to arrive somehow across vast time and space into the hands of Moses de León in 13th-century Ávila? However it came to be, it’s an esoteric and mystical commentary on the Torah. As such, it’s the textual manifestation of Kabbalah. There continues to be commentary on the spirit of thought related to the Zohar.
It is not power which is concealed and radically transcendent – but only life, the ‘mysterious hidden life of God.’ God, therefore, reveals himself as indeed meaningless – but not as a Nothing-of-Meaning or the capriciously inexplicable power issuing ‘commands that command nothing,’ but as an autotelic Pleroma of eternal Sabbath, delighting in its own absolute uniqueness. vi
That text works on me in a peculiar manner. I feel an existential weight being gently displaced by something else – a kind of metaphysical buoyancy connected to a sense of festiveness in the word “Sabbath.”
My sense is that the Zohar, whether loosely compiled from drifting Judaic materials or actually composed by Moses de León (as suggested by Gerhom Scholem), contains vestiges of Neoplatonism. Whenever you come upon texts about mystical paths to knowledge, you’ll more than likely find the faded footprints of an old dead Egyptian.
As the High Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance, Plotinus continued to exert an influence on the religious imagination.
Jakob Böhme (17th century) was a village shoemaker in Görlitz who led an uneventful life, until one day in the year 1600. His situation changed dramatically when he glimpsed the flash of a sunbeam playing on a pewter dish. The image transmuted into an effulgence of the Godhead. From that day on, he wrote treatises based on his continuing visions. Like Plotinus before him, he wrote about the emanation of all phenomena from an Ungrund of no-thingness. And he wrote about the intensity of mystic return, of reverse emanation. When you read his works, you might find the words losing semantic integrity, just as they somehow gain the aspect of symbolic images. These aren’t written images; they’re what is overlaid on the words by the reader’s engrossed imagination:
dark spheres, luminous spheres, spheres like open gyroscopes with metal bands forming the empty structures; engraved on those bands are peering eyes, some weeping a tear; floating in the space around the spheres are magic letters and numbers; all devices, aspects, and gestures glowing. ~ TB
I doubt this effect is registered in any dictionary or book of psychological science. But to me, it seems to have something to do with poetry. It might even have something to do with the primordial commingling of word and substance – an echo of the birth of metaphor.
The titles of Böhme’s manuscripts are evocative:
The Signature of All Things
Angelus Silesius (17th century) wrote a couplet that has transfixed readers ever since. It has an especially vertiginous effect on those who, via thoughts, psychedelics, music, or poems, have tried to touch the elusive fabric of reality, to see if it’s real.
The rose is without why.
It blooms because it blooms.
Language retains the peculiar, even as the peculiar goes into deep hiding inside lexical dimensions. Especially when it goes into hiding. Unusual forms of expression – those mystic attempts to convey sad light and dark joy – sleep in silences beneath the lexical quotidian. Eventually, they stir and drift toward the needs of later poets. There will be new figures of speech, forming in the collective slurry of doubt and hope, death and beauty.
To be continued: Part III (Modern Times)
Part I is here
ii Steven Rozenski, Jr., “The Promise of Eternity: Love and Poetic Form in Hadewijch’s Liederen or Stanzaic Poems,” in Exemplaria Vol. 22 No. 4 (Harvard University, Winter, 2010) 309
iii John Moyne and Coleman Barks, ed. and trans., Open Secret: Versions of Rumi (Threshold Books, Putman, Vermont, 1984) 29
iv Mark Musa, ed. and trans., The Portable Dante (Penguin Books, New York, London, 1995) 418
v Walshe, M. O’C., trans., The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart (New York, NY: Crossroads Herder, 2008)
vi Agata Bielik-Robson, Mysteries of the Promise. Negative Theology in Benjamin and Scholem (seminar paper at the University of Warwick, UK, 2013) 16, 17
Posted by Tim Buck