Before the monitor’s blank screen I bow my head, waiting for the words to come. The hum of this machine of mine keeps me steady, like the upper cable of a makeshift bridge across a river. And I’m picturing that time on the cable bridge across Hammersley Fork, at the end of a long day’s hike.
Perhaps those watching from the bank were thinking, “How brave!” But it’s much more likely they were saying to themselves, “Better him than me!” And they each took off their shoes & rolled up their pants’ legs, grabbing sticks to steady themselves against the current.
If you take a close look at bravery, it almost always turns out to be something else. Firemen enter the burning building out of a sense of duty, out of love. Soldiers rush into battle to save their comrades. A woman gives birth because she has to, because she wants a child. People do what they have to do. It’s their actions that are courageous; their hearts are full of trepidation.
I have never been brave like that. I’m lazy. I want to stay dry.
The others made their way downstream and crossed at the ford, shouting and laughing. I kept the lower cable tight against the heels of my boots and crab-walked slowly across. At its highest point the drop was less than ten feet, I said to myself, so what’s the big deal? But right in the middle I looked down and my heart skipped a beat.
The water looked so inviting, all of a sudden!
Submitted for the July 1 Ecotone topic Courage and Place. Hammersley Fork is both the name of a large stream and a State Forest Wild Area in northern Pennsylvania, over 30,000 acres of virtually roadless, recovering second-growth forest.
I’ve never been in the habit of writing down my thoughts and observations as they occur to me. Sometime around the age of twelve, I remember deciding that any truly important ideas couldn’t die, and if they didn’t come from me, they’d come from someone else. So that allowed me to relax and, over the years, learn how to let thoughts be, to incubate and hatch out when they were ready. If you’re hungry, make an omelet; otherwise, wait and watch and let them grow their own wings. For a guy afflicted with logorrhea, as I am, this is probably an essential attitude to have toward writing.
Since starting this weblog, however, I’ve been forced to moderate a bit. Of course, I could write a lot less than I do, but I enjoy the ad hoc, ephemeral quality of this medium so much, I find it hard to keep from giving it all I’ve got. Because giving stuff away is so much more fun than hoarding, you know (see yesterday’s poem). I see the Internet culture as a potlatch of sorts – and am distressed at all the sites that now charge for access. Anyhow . . .
Yesterday evening I decided to try the ultimate stream-of-consciousness blogging experiment. I don’t have a laptop, but with the help of a little pocket notebook and a generous quantity of homebrew, I resolved to try and record everything that occurred to me over a three-hour period as I sat on my front porch. (In case you’re curious, I’m currently working on the vat of yarrow brew that I blogged about back on May 23. I decided this past winter that bottling is a waste of time – I don’t need the “mouth-feel” of carbonation, since I grew up without soft drinks – so I just siphon it off, a half-gallon at a time, into a juice pitcher that I keep in the fridge. The important thing to know is that this is a cross between ale and mead, closer to the strength of wine than beer. The sheer quantity of yarrow takes a little getting used to, but no more so than the hops in a heavily hopped microbrew such as Hop Devil. The difference is, yarrow doesn’t make you sleepy and stupid. And being as it’s homebrew (and organic), I don’t have to worry about waking up with a hangover the next morning unless I really overdo it.)
So here’s the transcript, edited as little as possible. I’ll use [brackets] to indicate editorial additions. I started right around six p.m.
I am reading from The True Subject: Selected Poems of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, translated from the Urdu by Naomi Lazard. The poem “Before You Came” just blows me away! I wonder if he knew the Zen saying about how, when one gains satori, the mountains go back to just being mountains again?
[Before You Came
by Faiz Ahmed Faiz
Before you came things were just what they were:
the road precisely a road, the horizon fixed,
the limit of what could be seen,
a glass of wine no more than a glass of wine.
With you the world took on the spectrum
radiating from my heart: your eyes gold
as they open to me, slate the color
that falls each time I lose all hope.
With your advent roses burst into flame:
you were the artist of dried-up leaves, sorceress
who flicked her wrist to change dust into soot.
You lacquered the night black.
As for the sky, the road, the cup of wine:
one was my tear-drenched shirt,
the other an aching nerve,
the third a mirror that never reflected the same thing.
Now you are here again–stay with me.
This time things will fall into place;
the road can be the road,
the sky nothing but sky;
the glass of wine, as it should be, the glass of wine.]
[Watching a great-spangled fritillary chase a cabbage white:] Butterfly’s flight has been shown to be random [through wind tunnel experiments] – true randomness in Nature is a rare & difficult thing – Is there a sense in which we can see randomness, then, as a gift of God, rather than as a repudiation of Creation?
The tragic thing about drinking (or any drug taking) is that one has the most fun in the transition between the two states, “normal” and altered. Drunkenness itself represents a vain attempt to recapture that initial “wow” feeling of a good buzz, which is of necessity ephemeral. The alcoholic is a tragic idealist. To drink regularly without succumbing to alcoholism, one needs to become a comic realist – to embrace ephemerality & then let it go, not attempt to possess it
Drinkin’ & thinkin’ = drinkin & stinkin’? [This is a reference to a blues song.] Or Winken & Blinken & Nod (zzzz). Rene Dubos once confessed he could only write while drunk on wine. Dude, that is so French!
Male cardinal in late afternoon sun, gnatcatcher on elm branch, goes down for a bath. I hear goldfinches but can’t see them. When are they going to pair off, start nesting? Not as many bull thistles in my yard this year. How much thistledown does one goldfinch nest require?
Right now I want NOTHING. Happy stuppor [sic]!
O.K. I take that back. I want another drink! More more MORE! (But if they’re [sic] weren’t any, I’d be fine with that. This glass is it until I draw more from the carboy, boy.)
I like the way a nice buzz takes my mind off SEX, and related desires, lets me just enjoy the moment.
My God, I just SAW a no-see-um!
And now, a tiny smudge on my wrist.
For its memorial, just this ITCH.
As soon as I leave the porch to take a leak, a deerfly zooms in, starts orbiting my head. Damn I miss my dreads, fuckers could never bite through that. That was, like, Daoist: do nothing, let Nature take its course, and filth will repel filth: the homeopathic approach.
Go find a deer, motherfucker.
On the way back from pissing, I pick up the wine bottle with the beebalm flower in it. No hummingbirds all day – except I just saw one at the edge of the woods. (They have to have a nest nearby, with all the crazed courtship flights I’ve been seeing.) Set bottle w/flower down on the other stack chair. Voila! I have company!
THIS WRITING IS INTERFERING WITH MY DRINKING. (Think first, than write. If possible.)
Chipmunk clucking. He too must be in need of a good trance. [Note: this is my own theory. Conventional wisdom says that chipmunk chipping is purely territorial. Bullshit. They’re so tightly wound, I think they need to do it to calm their little triphammer hearts. I have watched chipmunks cluck (as I prefer to call it) from close quarters on numerous occasions. It sure looks like they’re zoning out!]
Hey, there’s the porcupine – long time, no see! Climbing my poor elm tree. Wonder if she has a porcupette under the house. (How do you pet a porcupette?) Quills shine in the evening sun. she moves around to the back of the tree, maybe to avoid the sun in her eyes? Now back in the sun for an instant: a reddish-brown tinge down under the quills, beautiful! (Red, white, brown, gray: the same range of colors as my beard) – Almost to the top –
A chickadee troika right beside the porch, dee dee dee WHACK – as one flies into the window behind me, another in hot pursuit. Love triangle? Or just the usual dominance/submission games. (sigh) Nature is SO unenlightened!
Now that I look at it, this elm does seem mighty SPARSE up top. Time for a collar [aluminum flashing to keep the porcupine from climbing it]?
Zoom! Speak of the hummingbird . . .
Oriole has the center stage now. Goldfinches have moved off. Other random chips & chirps. If I had MORE BEER, I could stay out until the thrushes tune up!
FAIZ is so GREAT – why didn’t I see this before? [I have owned the book for years, but wasn’t overly impressed on previous readings.]
“The birds that herald dreams
were exiled from their song,
each voice torn out of its throat.
They dropped into the dust
even before the hunter strung his bow.
“Oh, God of May, have mercy.
Bless these withered bodies
with the passion of your resurrection,
make the dead veins flow with blood.
“Give some tree the gift of green again.
Let one bird sing.”
[This is the latter half of the poem “When Autumn Came,” a political poem (in part)]
(the translator Naomi Lazard must be a true poet too)
Porcupine hunching down a limb (I hear it first, then look) – rests in crotch for half a minute, ascends other limb.
We have this much in common: we both love trees!
P. climbs four feet up & stops, does nothing for many minutes, wedged in another crotch. a snooze?
O.K., I’ve had enough – taste beginning to creep under my tongue (need water) [But see below.]
7:30 – birds quieting down – just vireo, goldfinches
Ten minutes later, P. still hasn’t moved. I think I will make fettuccini puttanesca for supper. But first, I feel an obligation to sit here and watch night come on. Sun now in tops of trees.
What was it my mother said, animals spend [on average] 60% of their time doing NOTHING? I believe it!
The pathos of drinking – one yearns to join Su T’ung-Po, Li Po, those fleeting moments they rendered immortal (for all practical purposes) – how I wish I could go back in time! But you know that THEY FELT THE SAME WAY – that pathetic nostalgia. “Drink sake and weep.” [This is a reference to the tanka poems in praise of sake by Otomo No Tabito (665-731). An example (Hiroaki Sato, tr.):
Better than to say things like a wise fellow, it seems, is to drink sake, get drunk, and weep]
7:45 – Porcupine is definitely taking a snooze. It looks so trusting.
Oops, it’s shaking its head. Sneezing, I think.
The sun retreats up the ridgeside, & just like that I can feel the cool coming on.
Irrationally solicitous for the beebalm on the other chair. (“Can I get you a coat?”)
P. scratches its head, adjusts its embrace [of the tree].
I can’t believe how quickly this buzz is fading (drinking and drugging is so self-indulgent)
Porcupine resumes climb! It’s 7:51. I need: coat, beer.
8:00 p.m. back from siphoning more beer. (Poetic symmetry for a man – beer passes through a hose twice)
Porcupine has climbed all of eight feet & is sprawled out asleep on a horizontal branch.
8:02 – first wood thrush [singing] – soon joined by a second.
(Almost full moon won’t rise till late – how am I gonna tear myself away for supper?)
8:07 – thrushes quiet again. Great-crested flycatcher, WEEP WEEP WEEP WEEP WEEP (but never weepy!) A very prehistoric sound. This year I have really grown to appreciate them.
Train. Short-hand jazz.
No one ever invented onomatopoeia for a train whistle! All you can do is imitate – yodel, harmonica. That high lonesome thing. “Well I wish I was / In a lonesome holler . . . ” Oh right, I am.
C’mon, Mr. Tanager, give me a view.
Scolding squirrel. Cat?
What did I do with my fingers before I had a beard to tug on?
Even now that it’s July and the leaves have darkened, still so many different shades of green in view.
W. thrush off to left, cuckoo [singing] to my right.
Squirrel still scolding, Porcupine has ascended into canopy (I missed it, too many leaves in the way)
The Buddhist atheist says: There is no end to suffering. Deal with it.
For some reason, the cover of Hayden Carruth’s Collected Shorter Poems [on the end table beside me] has a full frontal portrait of the sphinx. King as predator. Lost his nose despite his face. Still fucking sinister.
If I weren’t writing, I could be talking to myself. It feels good to be putting a jag to use! BUT I could also be putting the same thoughts to work in some harmonica playing. It’s a trade-off.
Alcohol keeps you at the stage of wanting to do ten different things at once – until you pass out. Mary G. Juana is so much more intelligent! Alcohol is a drug of distraction, cannabis is a drug of attention. Polar opposites. [Note to any law enforcement officers who may happen to read this: I do not buy, sell, or grow cannabis; I haven’t gotten stoned in years. But if it were legal, believe me, I probably wouldn’t be brewing half as much homebrew as I do.]
The other major difference is that alcohol kills time, cannabis slows it down – alcohol makes you think more slowly, hence time passes more quickly. The THIRD difference [of course] is taste! I want pot that tastes like beer!
8:45 – must be close to sunset, maybe already past – Thrushes have been decidedly desultory [in their singing] so far. Fuckers.
Thinking about what Lekshe wrote about ego & illusion. It could be right. It should be right. Why can’t I let it be right?
Tanager still singing, thrush a ways off, toward Margaret’s house [a derelict dwelling a quarter mile from my porch]. “Chip BANG” – that’s a tanager, all right
Faiz Ahmed Faiz! Poet with a rhyming name!
“If a forgotten pain
in some corner of the past
wants to burst into flame again, let it happen.”
This is better than the blooze.
Someone explodes a firework in the valley – can’t tell which valley, due to the reverberations off the ridges.
8:45 – Now the thrush [is finally calling] right here – then two more – as light dims and my book becomes hard to read (good timing)
9:00 – first fireflies in the grass
I run my fingers over the page, stroke these poems – in English, in Arabic [script]. Nothing. what did I expect, [miniature ridges,] mountains? The page is smooth as the cheek of a too-young lover.
9:03 – first bat, dropping from the tulip tree I think. Thrushes are silent. Only a song sparrow. Then nothing.
Hello, sister mosquito!
Almost too dark to write. Why it seems so quiet: daytime crickets have hushed. I realize this when the first nighttime cricket starts up.
9:18 – [Next-to-]last entry ’cause I can’t see! I can hear chewing from the elm tree for the first time –
Night descends –
[The nightly twin-propeller] cargo plane flies over
9:20 – P. climbs down tree – soft clack of claws on bark – Then leaf rustle as she heads up into the woods –
AFTERTHOUGHT: An amusing experiment, not something I’d want to make a habit of. There’s something inherently dishonest about the pretense of unmediated thoughts/reactions here. If you’re going to go to the trouble to record, it makes no sense not to go ahead and select, modify, polish into more shapely and interesting essay(s) or poem(s) – like this or like this. (In both those cases, however, nothing was written down before the poems themselves. Otherwise, I find, the poetry plays second fiddle to the prose. My ultimate goal – an idealistic one, to be sure – is to be able to think entirely in poetry. To me, that would represent true, unmediated thinking.)
i put a single stem
of beebalm – bright
red shaggy head – in
a green, wide-
bottle & set
it outside to see if
the first summer crickets
playing their rasps
pick right up where
they left off at
going on as if
this brief stage
were the whole of it
if you come for pizza
bring a bar of ayurvedic soap
a cut flower from your garden
& a jar of cold soup –
so thinks my friend L.
who gives & gives from
what little she has
& calls herself lucky
to be able to spare
“I’m not a real scholar, but I play one on the Internet!” Actually, that’s not even true. This may be obvious, but in case it isn’t: whenever I find myself writing in a superficially scholarly mode, as I did yesterday, I regard whatever conclusions I arrive at with a mixture of surprise (“Hey, I didn’t know I thought that!”), amusement, and suspicion. The more internally consistent my ideas appear, the more sense they make, the more suspicious I get!
But I refuse to refrain from such bullshit scholarship, for the simple reason that ideas are fun. Thinking out loud is both a great exercise and a wonderful way to connect with other people. The best and most interesting ideas almost always come about from dialogue. Therefore I think it’s essential that bloggers exercise the freedom to put their most challenging ideas into circulation, and be as playful as possible about it. (The only thing I really worry about with a post like yesterday’s “Ring of fire” is that I might become entirely too pedantic.)
Regarding yesterday’s post, I am grateful that both of the Christians among Via Negativa’s regular comment-leaving readers have responded with great energy and perception. Again, this probably goes without saying, but just so there’s no confusion on the matter: I have no bone to pick with anyone except literalists and bigots (often one and the same). And though I have aired my ambivalence toward world religions here in the past, out of a preference for the greater complexity and sense of geographical groundedness of what I call particularizing (as opposed to universalizing) traditions, I hope it’s clear that I have enormous respect for religious traditions and faith communities of all stripes. In this case, I think readers should take my own comments about Judeo-Christian tradition with a much larger grain of salt than the comments of those actually practicing within that tradition. I also do feel that, on any given subject, those speaking from their own lived experience generally trump those of us who are simply playing with ideas.
Some ideas can’t exist without words. These are the kinds of thoughts that animate much of my prose. But I know from decades of struggling to express more hidden things, usually through poetry, that a realm of perception beyond language not only exists, but is the real ground of our conscious existence. I know, too, that too much talk about things like love or freedom in the abstract can become a substitute for the real work: giving meaning to such ideas through action and embodiment.
All too often, articulateness and thoughtfulness seem mutually exclusive, I’m not sure why. Understand, I don’t beat myself up about being more glib than wise. I always figure that as long as I’m entertaining folks, and not hurting anyone’s feelings, I’m doing fine. Sure, we all could probably stand to become better listeners. I sometimes think that if I could listen well enough, I’d hear what the angels are saying to each other – and I don’t even believe in angels! That’s the kind of mixed-up fellow you’re dealing with here. Just so you know.
I know there must be some long-term readers of Via Negativa who are disgusted with me lately because my posts have become so much shorter than they used to be. If so, hie thee over to Velveteen Rabbi’s 7,000-word post about a week-long retreat with the incomparable Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.
The mystics talk about bittul ha-yesh, destroying “thingness,” ego. But I don’t want to destroy my ego! It’s a good manager, though a lousy boss. My goal instead is to make the ego more translucent, more transparent. To remove opacity so divine light can shine. The ego says, “it’s all me.” But we need to own that everything in us is God. Some days I wake up and think, “Oy, God, you decided to be Zalman again today?”
And here’s a quote that relates nicely to today’s post about love/desire/zeal/whatever:
Torah isn’t just information; we don’t just read it for the literal meaning of the text. Imagine if Eve [his wife] said to me, “Zalman, I love you,” and I replied, “Yah, you told me that last week, I know already!” It’s not about the information.
O.K., I need to stop cherry picking. Stop on over there and find your own favorites! Zalman is da Man. (See here for a review of his latest book.)
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.)