"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Monday, March 28, 2011

Like a Spinning Top, Like a Sponge




"Transformed by a magic stopping of the sun."
~ Czeslaw Milosz ~

I was left behind with the immensity of existing things.
A sponge, suffering because it cannot saturate itself;
a river, suffering because reflections of clouds and trees
are not clouds and trees.

Due to my usual seemingly (but not so!) distracted fashion of spreading and scattering reading material upon every available visible surface and jumping around (not randomly!) from text to text, the above passage from Czeslaw Milosz's poem, "Esse," is forever linked in my mind with Jean-Paul Sartre's essay "Why Write" (Click for full text). My reading method, while usually quite effective, does lead to the occasional "merged book" faux pas. In this particular case, in all good faith, I reassigned the image of the suffering sponge from Milosz to Sartre. I can only trust that Milosz would forgive and that Sartre would be flattered.

I still recall reading the Sartre and talking about it the next day in a critical theory seminar that I was taking at the time (i.e., way back in the Fall of 1983). I was excited for the class discussion and the chance to talk about Sartre's fascinating images and perplexing yet convincing descriptions of reading and writing:

" . . . when we seek to perceive our work, we create it again, we repeat mentally the operations which produced it; each of its aspects appears as a result. Thus, in the perception, the object is given as the essential thing and the subject as the inessential. The latter seeks essentiality in the creation and obtains it, but then it is the object which becomes the inessential. [emphasis added]

"This dialectic is nowhere more apparent than in the art of writing, for the literary object is a peculiar top which exists only in movement. To make it come into view a concrete act called reading is necessary, and it lasts only as long as this act can last. Beyond that, there are only black marks on paper"






My contribution to the discussion was to say that in addition to the image of the book as a spinning top, I particularly liked Sartre's image of the writer as a suffering, unsaturated sponge; a river carrying the reflection of the clouds and tress. But no one else shared my enthusiasm or my memory. In fact, the professor informed me, those images were no where to be found in "Why Write."

Huh? Not in "Why Write." Not Sartre? Okay, what else had I been reading in addition to my big old tome of critical theory? A couple of seventeenth - century dramas, a novel, some magazines, some freshman compositions. Where had I read those words? Well, I felt pretty certain it wasn't those first-year essays. The plays? Possibly. The novel? Didn't sound right. Finally, it came to me: it was in one of the magazines (Atlantic Monthly? New Republic?) I went straight home, thumbed through all the pages until I found it, and have remembered it to this day. Esse: that was the connecting factor:

"I looked at that face, dumbfounded. The lights of métro stations flew by; I didn't notice them. What can be done, if our sight lacks absolute power to devour objects ecstatically, in an instant, leaving nothing more than the void of an ideal form, a sign like a hieroglyph simplified from the drawing of an animal or bird? A slightly snub nose, a high brow with sleekly brushed-back hair, the line of the chin - but why isn't the power of sight absolute? - and in a whiteness tinged with pink two sculpted holes, containing a dark, lustrous lava. To absorb that face but to have it simultaneously against the background of all spring boughs, walls, waves, in its weeping, its laughter, moving it back fifteen years, or ahead thirty. To have. It is not even a desire. Like a butterfly, a fish, the stem of a plant, only more mysterious. And so it befell me that after so many attempts at naming the world, I am able only to repeat, harping on one string, the highest, the unique avowal beyond which no power can attain: I am, she is. Shout, blow the trumpets, make thousands-strong marches, leap, rend your clothing, repeating only: is!

"She got out at Raspail. I was left behind with the immensity of existing things. A sponge, suffering because it cannot saturate itself; a river, suffering because reflections of clouds and trees are not clouds and trees."

Brie-Comte-Robert, 1954

By Czeslaw Milosz
Translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Robert Pinsky
"Czeslaw Milosz - Poetry: Esse". Nobelprize.org. 8 Feb 2011

In another poem, "On Prayer," Milosz writes mystically of the bridge leading to the "Shore of Reversal," reminding me somewhat of Harry Potter peering into the "Mirror of Erised" at Hogwarts. For Harry, Desire reversed. For Milosz, "everything opposite." The desire of Harry's heart is communication beyond the grave; Milosz ponders the same phenomenon:

All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge
And walking it we are aloft, as on a springboard,
Above landscapes the color of ripe gold
Transformed by a magic stopping of the sun.
That bridge leads to the shore of Reversal
Where everything is just the opposite and the word 'is'
Unveils a meaning we hardly envisioned.



Less seriously, how about that merged book syndrome? Are you familiar with the Merged Book Contest at Laugh Break? It's silly, I know, but also very literary and very funny. Don't forget that even very serious Emily Dickinson allowed for a bit of nonsense:

A little Madness in the Spring
Is wholesome even for the King,
But God be with the Clown —
Who ponders this tremendous scene —
This whole Experiment of Green —
As if it were his own!

(Rewritten by Roald Dahl (1916 - 90) as:
"A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest of men.")

On the one hand, the kings and wise ones are allowed some silliness; yet, how appropriate that Dickinson (1830 - 86) should conclude her poem with a warning against the foolishness of placing ourselves at the center of the universe. To bring this essay full circle, Sartre (1905 - 80) advised similarly in the opening paragraphs of "Why Write":

"But if we know that we are directors of being, we also know that we are not its producers. If we turn away from this landscape, it will sink back into its dark permanence. At least, it will sink back; there is no one mad enough to think that it is going to be annihilated. It is we who shall be annihilated, and the earth will remain in its lethargy until another consciousness comes along to awaken it. . . .

One of the chief motives of artistic creation is certainly the need of feeling that we are essential in relationship to the world"

As Milosz (1911 - 2004) says in his poem above, we strive to name the world, the spring landscape, the green experiment: "repeating only: is!"


and lastly,

some vocabulary words

in esse (in es′ē): in being; in actual existence

as opposed to

in posse (in pä′sē): in possibility; only potentially

as in

a posse ad esse: from possibility to reality

and a poem

Esse & Posse
The groan of fallen Hosts; a torrid glare
Of cities; battle-cries of Right and Wrong
Where armies shout to rocking fleets that roar
On thundering oceans to the thundering shore,
And high o'er all-long, long prolonged, along
The moaning caverns of the plaining air,-
The cry of conscious Fate. The firmament
Waves from above me like a tattered flag;
And as a soldier in his lowly tent
Looks up when a shot strikes the helpless rag
From o'er him, and beholds the canopy
Of Heaven, so, sudden to my startled eye,
The Heavens that shall be! The dream fades. I stand
Among the mourners of a mourning land.

Sydney Thompson Dobell (1824 - 74)


Next Fortnightly Post
Thursday, April 14, 2011

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

and my previous Czeslaw Milosz posts
on The Quotidian Kit:

Czeslaw Milosz February 5, 2011

Bridge of Air February 6, 2011

Haiku For The Family January 24, 2010

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Mystery of the Matryoshka:
Within Within Within

Largest ~ Elegant Renaissance Maidens ~
Smallest ~ Very Tiny Little Red Riding Hood and Alice in Wonderland ~
~ Gifts from my friend Marietta. Thanks Et! ~

A couple of months ago, my friend Gabrielle left a couple of mysterious facebook messages. First, there was:

Did you know that your brain contains atoms that were once part of Albert Einstein?

Then a couple of days later:

I just want to let all of you guys that you're leftover stardust! I love you guys! So go be an amazing leftover star!

After that one, I just had to write back and ask her:

Q: Gabi, Have you been reading "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man - in - the - Moon Marigolds"? I love that play!

A: By Paul Zindel? No, I haven't read it, but I should! I'm actually doing my physics homework right now. I am not a nerd . . . okay maybe a little! I've always found it fascinating that we're interconnected through a bunch of atoms. It's just more evidence that we're all part of one big picture. I'll definitely have to read "The Effect of Gamma Rays."

Ah ha! Physics homework! That explains it!

However, you can see why Gabi's posts made me think of Paul Zindel's play, in which the main character, Tillie delivers the following cosmic explanation of her science fair project. Tillie's stirring science fair speech never fails to give me goosebumps! She is a girl of such true vision, and one of my all time favorite literary heroines:

"For one thing, the effect of gamma rays on man-in-the-moon marigolds has made me curious about the sun and the stars, for the universe itself must be like a world of great atoms . . . but most important, I suppose ...my experiment has made me feel important--every atom in me, in everybody, has come from the sun--from places beyond our dreams. The atoms of our hands, the atoms of our hearts" (101-02).
(See my book blog Still Not Too Late: April 29, 2009)

Not long after my chat with Gabi, another friend had a great passage to share at our First Friday discussion group. But first, she said, "Do you have one of those Russian nesting dolls that we could look at?" Do I? I have big ones, little ones, authentic classics, cheap imitations, storybook characters, cats, Santas. And that's just for a start. I ran a got a few sets, and my friend Nancy read aloud:

"Keep in mind, as you pray and meditate, that the God inside of you is more powerful than anything else in the world. The entire cosmos is imprinted on every atom of your being. . . .

"You can think of the universe as a set of wooden Russian matryoshka dolls, with each doll having a smaller one inside of it. The entire visible universe is the outermost doll, and nested inside it are galaxies, solar systems, stars, planets -- right down to the smallest doll, which is you. But inside of you is an even smaller doll that somehow has the biggest doll inside of it. When you figure out this riddle, you will have discovered the key to your ascension!"

from Reincarnation: The Missing Link In Christianity

by Elizabeth Clare Prophet (1939 - 2009)

Talk about goosebumps! Naturally, as soon as I heard this, I had to share my favorite passage from The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man - in - the - Moon Marigolds, as well a quick summary of my recent conversation with Gabi. Atoms, atoms everywhere!

Little Ben with the Matryoshka Collection, 1997

Sam's Display of the Tiniest

I have collected many matryoshka sets over the years and have been given many as presents, especially when I was writing extensively about dolls and miniatures and the secrets of interiority. Most enlightening on this topic is Susan Stewart's book: On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Stewart's insight on the dollhouse -- "the house within a house" and even more so, "the dollhouse within the dollhouse and its promise of an infinitely profound interiority" -- is equally applicable to the nesting Matryoshka / Matreshka dolls, stacked and nested so neatly within one another:

"Transcendence and the interiority of history and narrative are the dominant characteristics of the most consummate of miniatures -- the dollhouse. A house within a house . . . a space within an enclosed space . . . the locket or the secret recesses of the heart: center within center, within within within. The dollhouse is a materialized secret; what we look for is the dollhouse within the dollhouse and its promise of an infinitely profound interiority."
(p 61)

The atoms of our hearts, the key to our ascension, the tiny doll inside of us that somehow contains the entire universe -- herein lies the mystery of the matryoshka. Within within within.

Egyptian Mummy Matryoshkas from the Museum Catalogue
and Giant Mummy Earrings from Von's

Next Fortnightly Post
Monday, March 28, 2011

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

and my book