Ring of fire

There’s been some very impressive blogging on the subject of desire recently, beginning with Coffee Sutras (also here) and continuing with Vajrayana Practice, Lekshe’s Mistake and A Line Cast, A Hope Followed. Each of these posts is a gem. I especially admire those who are willing to bare so much, to let themselves be seen as “human, all too human.”

In many ways, the question of what to do with desire is one of the central concerns of all religions. In Buddhism, with the presumption of reincarnation, overcoming desire becomes linked to the escape from otherwise endless suffering. In modern world religions in general, the salvation of the individual usually assumes a central importance, despite the lip service given to charity or compassion. Neither of these scenarios has much attraction for me, I’m afraid. To me, the quest for human perfection would be better sought through more pragmatic ends – caring for each other, building community, defending political freedoms, and the like. That is to say, through love . . . which can never, and should never, in my opinion, be divorced from desire.

Does saying so make me a Christian? I don’t know. I do know that that portion of the Bible held sacred by both Jews and Christians speaks to me as few other works of world literature ever have. (There are a few others.) Here is the climax of the great poem known as the Song of Songs (8:5-7):

Who is this that cometh up from the wilderness, leaning upon her beloved? I raised thee up under the apple tree: there thy mother brought thee forth: there she brought thee forth that bare thee.
Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it: if a man would give all the substance of his house for love, it would utterly be contemned.

Marvin H. Pope’s 743-page translation and elucidation of the Song of Songs for the Anchor Bible series takes advantage of modern discoveries such as the Septuagint (the ancient translation of the Bible into classical Greek) and tablets from the 12th century BCE pagan Hebrew city-state of Ugarit. He renders the same passage as follows, with dashes to denote an elision in the text, and brackets indicating a poetically discordant later interpolation:

Who is this ascending from the steppe,
Leaning on her lover?
Under the apple tree I aroused you;
There your mother conceived you,
There she who bore you conceived.
Set me as a signet on your heart,
As a signet on your arm.
For Love is strong as Death,
Passion fierce as Hell.
Its darts are darts of fire,
Its flames — — —
Mighty waters cannot quench Love,
No torrents can sweep it away.
[If a man gave all the wealth of
his house for love, would he be despised?]

Pope tends strongly toward the reductionist, source-critical view that the Song of Songs is simply a pagan hymn for the annual “sacred marriage” fertility rite. I’m not sure it’s so simple; this interpretation requires us to assume that the compilers of the Tanakh were utter dolts, which I doubt. The Song’s inclusion in a fiercely Yahwist collection of texts suggests that the impulse to spiritualize erotic love carried over from pagan into orthodox Hebrew practice at an early date. (To this day, Hasidic couples attempt to “elevate” the sexual act through sacred love-making on the Sabbath. As I understand it – not well at all! – something akin to tantra, i.e. sacred role-playing, is involved. See here ).

Pope does agree with the Apostle Paul and many other traditional commentators that the line “For Love is stronger than Death” provides a sort of key to the entire poem. It seems that people in the ancient Near East used to celebrate funerals with orgiastic feasts, and ancient depictions of sacred marriage rites frequently depict a dog under the bed, chewing on a piece of carrion. So erotic love has been seen as a way of defying the power of death since very ancient times.

The problem with poems, from a scholarly point of view, is that if they’re any good they possess multiple layers of meaning from the outset. It is quite easy for me to imagine a devout Yahwist composing the Song of Songs, taking lines and verses wholesale from the folk tradition as would be normal for quasi-oral composition, and improvising passages that played skillfully and daringly with what must have been simply the dominant metaphorical language for love in the ancient world. What appears as a mishmash from different sources is in reality no more chaotic than, say, a good extemporaneous blues song, or a medieval Japanese renga (linked verse) composition. The shifting perspectives and alternating voices in the Song of Songs wouldn’t seem out of place in either genre.

More than that, the polyvocalic and montage effects may have been intended to suggest something about the realm and personality of the sacred itself. If God is not alluded to anywhere in the poem, that may have reflected in part a conscious intention to show what the godhead was not. Here, by way of contrast, is Pope’s translation of an Ugaritic text describing the behavior of El, the father of the gods, at a banquet:

El offered game in his house,
Venison in the midst of his palace.
He invited the gods to mess.
The gods ate and drank,
Drank wine till sated,
Must till inebriated. . . .
[El] drank wine till sated,
Must till inebriated. . . .
He floundered in his excrement and urine.
El collapsed, El like those who descend into Earth.

This is the kind of grossly physical, licentious deity that their neighbors worshipped – and that the Yahweh-worshippers rejected with fanatic zeal. The single most essential fact about this Yahweh was that s/he was above and beyond all priestly or mimetic control. We can continue to use old names (El, Elohim, El Shaddai) interchangeably with the new, because after all, as God reminded Moses at the burning bush, all names are suspect and provisional anyway. “I will be whoever I will be.” Any attempt to conceptualize Deity therefore represented a transgression against the very laws of Creation. The first of the canonical Ten Commandments forbids idolatry.

“Idolatry makes love impossible,” observes the gifted poet and Christian memoirist Kathleen Norris (Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith). The commandments to love God and to love one’s neighbor as oneself occur in close conjunction with the fairly arbitrary list of Ten, and many rabbinical commentators in fact gave them precedence. But however ordered, it’s clear that, as Norris suggests, statements about true and false forms of love lie right at the heart of Biblical religion.

All of these loves are interrelated: self-love is nothing if it doesn’t include the love of our neighbor, and of the God who created us all in the divine image. A measure of balance in these objects of our devotion is a safeguard against idolatry, which can give any of the three too much weight. We can love ourselves too much, but we can also love others to a possessive excess. And even religious devotion . . . can become an idol. We can become so focused on our love of God that we demean other people in the process.

In a way, it’s unfortunate that this observation, which would be fairly commonplace for anyone versed in Rabbinical Judaism, seems so revelatory in the context of the Christian tradition. I believe that the intense focus on hierarchy in the churches descended from the Roman Empire, as well as on thinking the right thoughts, conspired to make love compulsive, and thus impossible. I don’t think that the extreme mind-body duality of the ancient world would ever have had such a tenacious hold over the Western imagination were it not for this insistence on hierarchy, this idolatrous clinging to a violent and intolerant Lord not so different from the Ugaritic El – or dozens of other Near Eastern divine and semi-divine potentates.

Nor has this prejudice died with the “death of God.” Though it’s dangerous to generalize, one thing I find most objectionable about New Age thinking is the perpetuation of the mind/body or spirit/body split, in which the spirit is always “higher,” and human beings must “evolve” to a “higher plane” or “higher consciousness.” Sometimes one may hear about depth instead of height, but this inversion still presumes a rejection of the material/physical realm in favor of something else. Sometimes, too, this “something else” is described in quite materialistic terms – some form of “energy” or “aura” – that may be ultimately accessible to the instruments of modern science. How exactly then do matter and spirit differ?

Shorn of centuries of interpretation influenced by Roman intolerance, Persian dualism, Hellenistic misogyny and Egyptian neo-Platonism, and freed from the idolatrous and nonsensical notion of biblical inerrancy, the unique and beautiful anthology called the Hebrew Bible bears eloquent testimony to the struggle of human consciousness to escape its own extinction. This may not be immediately apparent. Apart from the youngest prophetic books, concerns about the personal immortality of the individual may be read into the texts that make up the Old Testament only with great difficulty. The primary concern of a great deal of the myth and history is with the survival of the corporate personality Israel, at once a man and a people. Jacob/Israel is not the first, the best, or the highest – he is, like his father, the second son, and he is surrounded and somewhat dominated by powerful women. In myth and in history, Israel remains locked in an agonistic embrace with a divinity whose own personality verges on the corporate, with various forms of separated entities deputized to assume a material form on behalf of the ineffable YHVH.

If the Hebrew Bible largely ignores the (to us) more familiar kind of immortality, that’s not because the desire to transcend the self wasn’t recognized. It’s simply because such immortality is really proper only to YHWH and (perhaps!) His chosen people. To aspire toward indefinite continuation on one’s own, as an incorporeal spirit, could only have been seen as an act of supreme blasphemy and self-idolatry.* Even Job, the great rebel, does not go that far. The worst he can do – and his wife urges him to it – would be to “curse God and die.” But he will die in any case, he knows that. His anger at God stems from the inexplicable and seemingly unjust termination of his descendents – and hence the erasure of his name – and only secondarily his own physical suffering.

The book of Job strikes at the heart of idolatry in more ways than one. William Blake was one of the few commentators to understand that the book may have intended a subtle attack on that form of idolatry mentioned by Norris, substituting solemn faces and patriarchal concerns about the survival of one’s “seed” for the joyous abandon proper to true worship. In Blake’s first engraving for the Book of Job, a patriarchal deity surrounded by seraphim has its counterpart below in the figure of Job, surrounded by his children, who hold books and scrolls on their laps. A dog sleeps under the table. By contrast, the final plate depicts a completely non-hierarchical universe, with the moon and sun to the left and right and the family of Job ranged in between, with lutes, harps, flutes and horns in their hands, jamming for all they’re worth. Job’s left hand is upraised like a conductor’s as his right hand plucks the harp strings. Sheep and sheepdog sleep peacefully in the foreground.

This may seem like a flight of fancy with little scriptural basis. But it’s telling that the one example we are given to illustrate how Job’s “latter end was blessed more than his beginning” is that, alone among his new descendents, his daughters are singled out for special attention (42:13-15):

He had also seven sons and three daughters.
And he called the name of the first, Jemima; and the name of the second, Kezia; and the name of the third, Kerenhappuch.
And in all the land were no women found so fair as the daughters of Job: and their father gave them inheritance among their brethren.

Some kind of levelling clearly seems to be at issue here.

In the worldview of the Old Testament, love of God, love of self, and love of neighbor (which includes not merely one’s own tribe, but widows, orphans, even the naturalized alien) are indeed intertwined in one passionate knot. Certain psalms, as well as the Song of Songs and other portions of the text, suggest that self-transcendence should be sought in a form of love between God and human being in which a kind of equivalence may ultimately be achieved. For in true love, whatever the roles that passion might inspire, there can be no permanent inequality. “God is not indifferent to man’s quest of Him,” says the great Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel (God in Search of Man).

He is in need of man, in need of man’s share in redemption. . . . The words ‘I am a stranger on earth’ (Psalms 119:19), were interpreted to refer to God. God is a stranger in the world. The Shechinah, the presence of God, is in exile. Our task is to bring Him back into the world, into our lives. To worship is to expand the presence of God in the world. To have faith in God is to reveal what has been concealed.

To reveal, but also to hide – in this world, with all its flaws. In the comic universe of the Song of Songs, concealment and revelation follow each other in dizzying succession. Who is seeking, who is being sought? At more than one spot in the text, scholars no less than the rest of us must confess to some confusion.

But that’s not from any vagueness, any airy spirituality. The poem overflows with concrete imagery and physical motion, the names of flowers and spices, people and animals. A coherent geography can even be teased out of it. Yet in this overwhelmingly material realm, “Love is stronger than Death.” We ascend from the wilderness to the garden, to the apple tree, to the spot where birth-and-death had its tragically illuminating origin in the taste of a wondrous fruit. Since that time, says the tradition, there is no going back to a simple living-in-the-present – except in moments of divine ecstasy. Wisdom teaches that we possess nothing; everything belongs to God, and everything must ultimately go back to God (literally, in the case of the Jubilee). Symbolic mutual possession, the exchange of rings or bracelets, is part of the divine game.

Marvin H. Pope’s exposition on the meaning of “passion” in his translation is worth quoting at length.

The term qin’ah is here rendered by [the Septuagint] as zelos and by Vulgate, aemulatio. Luther rendered Eifer, “zeal.” [The Revised Standard Version’s] retention of KJ’s “jealosy” was apparently influenced by consideration of the passages where the term qin’ah is applied to a man’s suspicion that his wife may have been unfaithful (Num 5:14, 29-30) and his venomous and vengeful rage toward her violator (Prov 6:34); cf. Ezek 16:38 where qin’ah is joined to blood and wrath as the reward of the adulteress. Yahweh is similarly provoked to jealousy and anger by Israel’s idolatries (Deut 32:16,21; Ps 73:58), and is given the title qanna or qanno, using the nominal pattern applied to professions, as designating one especially zealous or jealous . . . The term qinah, however, is used of emotions other than jealousy . . . It is clear that the word can designate a variety of strong emotions, anger, envy, jealousy, fury, and in the present context, the sexual instinct and ardor which is one of man’s [sic] strongest propensities.

The essential point here, I think, regardless of what spin one wants to put on it, is that the same word is used for God as for humans. This is what I like about the Bible: it doesn’t try to push uncomfortable realities under a pious rug, much less shy away from ambiguity and paradox.

“. . . The coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it.” What gives light must also give out heat. To become enlightened, in the Biblical view, is to endure great burning. Only thus can the waters of chaos and death be transformed into so much harmless steam.

*This is actually my own theory, I confess. But it makes perfect sense, don’t you think?

UPDATE: I got the Blake analysis a little wrong. The source I was using showed the second illustration (the one with God above, and Job below) in place of the first. Blake’s actual first illustration showed the patriarch and his wife sitting under a giant tree, open books on their laps, children ranged to right and left, on their knees. So there is still a slight element of hierarchy. But more significantly, all the musical instruments are hanging from the branches of the tree. In this way, I think, Blake makes his criticism of the pre-trial Job explicit. The same tree is in the background in the last plate; I hadn’t noticed it in the other reproduction. The same sheep are in the foreground, but in the first illustration they are all asleep, whereas in the last one, the rams have their heads up. Also, the sun and the moon trade places: in the first illustration, the sun is on the left; in the last, it’s on the right.

How could I have missed that tree? For it is that, more than anything, that ties this in with the Song of Songs!

(Thumbnails of all 21 plates may be viewed here.)

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

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