Monday, August 22, 2016

FireboX

[for Bezna]



All manners of being are the same to fire.
– Hadewych
 Life—to us, that means constantly transforming all that we are into light and flame, and also all that wounds us; we simply can do no other . . . Only great pain is the liberator of the spirit . . . that long, slow pain that takes its time and in which we are burned . . . But the attraction of everything problematic, the delight in an X, is so great in highly spiritual, spiritualized people . . . that this delight flares up like bright embers again and again over all the distress of what is problematic, over all the danger of uncertainty, and even over the jealousy of the lover. We know a new happiness . . .  
– Nietzsche
 Whatever exists between the number one and the number two . . . the line of mystery and fire. 
– Clarice Lispector

ONE, TWO, THIRD. There is the white box, the space that sees itself as viewing objectively from above/outside (transcendent, solar, universal, paternal), a zone of contemplation, understanding, discourse. And there is the black box, the space that sees itself as viewing subjectively from below/within (immanent, lunar, individual, maternal), a zone of enjoyment, ecstasy, music. Out of the mutual negation of these two spaces, which correspond to the polar regions of the arts (fine and performative), we present a third: fireboX. An inverted space of the intersection of the white and the black. Non-place of life, transformation, love. The third is really the first. “Firstly and chiefly, the principal subject of this Art is fire” (Paracelsus).

DIAGNITION. The white box is anemic, sterile, boring. The black box is plethoric, rotting, excited. They are dual sides of the same coin, to be melted down, tossed into where it already is—the burning X of fire. To cast the white/black box in this way, to liquefy in the crucible that shapes its sides, means to track the eye beyond the illusion of spectatorial space, the notion of there being places in which to see and to be seen—a fundamental projection of the I whose life is nothing other than the daily show of being its own audience. To see and seize fire rather than achromatic color as the container and carrier of vision means to restore the eye to its own principle and invisibility, to curve it back around the omnipresent specular point where seer and seen coincide, to convert or bend it in the fire of which all we see is only the flames. “For that light was within, I was looking outward. Nor was that light in space: but I was intent upon things that are contained in space, and in them I found no place to rest” (Augustine, Confessions).  White/black = the invisible as visible. Fire = the visible as invisible. The die is cast—everything is on fire.

NO( )HERE. The notion that there exists a place, an ‘out there’ where things happen is erroneous. There is inside and outside. There are bodies without and within bodies. And there is no place. Like time, place is simply definition, the drawing of a boundary around something (de-finire). It exists in the mind alone. “For if every definition is in art and every art is in mind, every place, since place is definition, will necessarily be nowhere else but in the mind” (Eriugena, Periphyseon). Where are you? “To inhabit is still to say too much since the sky of skies is a non-place and a non-time” (Lyotard, Confession of Augustine). When I spin around and try to get my bearings, to get a grip on myself and understand where I actually am, what do I see? Darkness and light, light and darkness . . . So what is that dark thing that gives light, this light by which one sees darkness? What is the unquenchable ocean wherein you and I are drowning and burning? “They were right, those ancient philosophers who identified fire with the principle of the universe” (Cioran, The New Gods).

FIREWORKS. The work of art produces or presents the placeless place of itself, illuminating the specular utopia of the image or gesture—its being at once somewhere and nowhere. “[T]he work of art does not simply refer to something, because what it refers to is actually there. We could say that the work of art signifies an increase in being” (Gadamer, The Relevance of the Beautiful). Like a still blast or frozen lightning, this increase is an intensification of that nature whose work, in distinction from both divine creation and human artifice, is “to bring forth into actuality that which lay hidden” (Hugh of St. Victor, Didascalicon). As the seed is a slow bomb, so “art imitates nature in her nature of operation [ars imitatur naturam in sua operatione]” (Aquinas, Summa Theologica), exploding reality according to the silence of its own explosiveness. Now the (in)existent line is seen anew to be the more-than-itself that it always was: a halo, a horizon—something within-beyond place. Location as reverse latency of the placeless. Where are things? “Things are not outside us, in measurable external space, like neutral objects (ob-jecta) of use and exchange; rather they open to us the original place solely from which the experience of measurable external space becomes possible . . . Like the fetish, the toy, things are not properly anywhere, because their place is found on this side of objects and beyond the human in a zone that is no longer objective or subjective, neither personal nor impersonal, neither material nor immaterial, but where we find ourselves suddenly facing these apparently so simple unknowns: the human, the thing” (Agamben, Stanzas). So this sudden facing in unknowing is continuous with the situation of fire reverie, the moving spectacle of flame which is analogously third, something securely between subject and object that also enfolds both, containing them in the absolutely seductive—since already taking place—threat of total transformation: “To lose everything in order to gain everything. The lesson taught by the fire is clear” (Bachelard, The Psychoanalysis of Fire).

PYROMETIS. As labor is essentially an art of fire, of manipulating the energies of physical nature, so art is metaphysical fireworks, the pyrotechnics of synthesizing and detonating truth-goodness-beauty (i.e. the loveable), the science of setting fire to the ideal in both senses at once or ‘bringing it to earth.’ “Love alone is devoid of all purpose and a spark of Divine Love sets fire to all purposes” (Meher Baba, The Everything and the Nothing). Fire is perfect translation, the pure movement of itself. “A line of openness that slashes through the god, the human and the earth” (Negarestani, Cyclonopedia). Consider the fire pot—a means of transporting the spot of fire—in relation to place. “Just as a vessel is a movable place, so place is an immovable vessel” (Aristotle, Physics). As fire, in order to be conveyed, must be kept in its own place, so does fire itself carry the sense of topological impossibility, of being a motion of the placeless, a vessel of the immovable. Theologically, fire is the indifference of hell and heaven, the substance of God in which both saint and sinner burn. “That divine fire always lives by itself and thrives without any nourishment. There is no smoke mixed with it, but it is pure and flowing, as liquid as water” (Lactantius, Divine Institutes). Like the frictional crossing through which point becomes spark, the action of staying with fire, inside the fireboX, holds a double, self-tensioning sense. On the one hand, it signifies the insistence of dwelling, of here as it, the only place to go, of remaining on the spot. On the other hand, it signifies the refusal of being on any side, of falling for duality or occupying a position in the agon of fire. “Postquam vapor diutinus / decoxit exustum latus, / ultro e catasta iudicem / conpellat adfatu brevi: / ‘converte partem corporis / satis crematam iugiter, / et fac periclum, quid tuus / Vulcanus ardens egerit’’” (Prudentius, Hymnus in Honorem Passionis Laurentii) [After the long-continued heat has burned his side away. Lawrence on his own part hails the judge and addresses him briefly from the gridiron: “This part of my body has been burned long enough; turn it round and try what your hot god of fire has done”]. As if the indifference of fire to what it burns and the indifference to being burned coincide in the point of burning with a pure, perfectly commanding will: the play of fire itself—and ‘fire always plays with fire.’

BURNING UP.  Paradoxical will of the artist: to combust with the spontaneity of one’s own being, to flame into oneself. “I would like to explode, flow, crumble into dust, and my disintegration would be my masterpiece” (Cioran, On the Heights of Despair). “But the laughter of men seems to grieve me, for I have a heart. Would I like to be a comet? I think so. For they possess the swiftness of birds; they blossom with fire and are like children in purity” (Hölderlin, “In a Lovely Blue”). “I don’t want anything . . . I am like the cicadas that explode from so much singing. When shall I explode?” (Lispector, A Breath of Life). “I have to set myself afire, and since I am everywhere, all will be in that fire of mine. There is no doubt about it now. The whole world will have to burn with me” (Meher Baba).

?. Why ponder ‘black hyperbox’ under the rubric of fire? Here are a three more reasons, to be piled upon the funeral pyre. First, the hyperbox is not another, better box, but a beyond-box that answers like fire to the spontaneous call of that which blows wheresoever it will, preferring to be nowhere than somewhere in this world: “Truly I would rather be nowhere bodily, wrestling with that blind nothingness, than be like some great lord who would be everywhere, merrily playing all this something as if it were his own” (The Cloud of Unknowing). To index the black hyperbox as fire affirms that it is not a ‘next’ space for self-projection or social theatrics, not a region of colors, but a crucible, a site of individuated burning, an X, as per Nietzsche’s meaning of life. At the same time, doing so also recognizes the link between color (rhetoric, affects, artifice, staging) and fire, the grounding of lights in the unseen. For X is always a matter of marking what does not have to be brought from anywhere, of designating (like a stage spike) actualities that are rather too real to enter into representation. Second, as an obscure and blackening force, fire is black, in principle. Fire is a form of ‘first black,’ a black blacker, in its abysmal unseeability, than any black we see. “Air is white and fire is black. So when air changes from whiteness into blackness, what is generated will be fire” (Alexander of Aphrodisias, On Aristotle). Third, a final and best-worst reason for choosing to draw the ‘black hyperbox’ with the principle of fire is that there really is no choice, fire being a name precisely for that which calls itself to itself in a paradoxically omnipotent manner, through a creative-sacrificial force at once irresistible and non-coercive.  “The light of love is not free from its fire of sacrifice. Like heat and light, love and sacrifice go hand in hand. The true spirit of sacrifice that springs spontaneously does not and cannot reserve itself for particular objects and special occasions. Love and coercion can never go together. Love has to spring spontaneously from within. It is in no way amenable to any form of inner or outer force and it cannot be forced upon anybody, yet it can be awakened in one through love itself” (Meher Baba). In other words, black hyperbox is neither black nor hyper if not a modality of ‘the only game in town’ or species of the torment: “The intolerable shirt of flame / Which human power cannot remove. / We only live, only suspire / Consumed by either fire or fire” (T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets). The only thing that matters, the only way of art, is this flame that cannot be put off, the work of burning which enters the fabric of life beyond one’s ability either to follow or to leave behind, just as the work of physical fire is essentially to penetrate bodies and make them like itself. In the Zororastrian scriptures it is written that asha or truth “penetrates all ethical life, as fire penetrates all physical being.” Thus the ancient equation of fire, arrow, and glance—“From one glance all upheaval will arise, / the sharp fire of love will enter the mind” (Unsuri, Vamiq u ‘Adhra [The Lover and the Virgin])—and the classic Xian figure for mystical union, in which individuality is at once annihilated and preserved: “As fire penetrates iron, and seems to change it into itself, so does God penetrate the soul and fill her with Himself; and though she never loses her own being, yet she becomes so penetrated and absorbed by that immense ocean of the Divine substance, that she remains, as it were, annihilated, and as if she ceased to exist” (Alphonsus Maria de’ Liguori).  The relevance of this traditional idea of spiritual fire to the practice of art—i.e. the performance of life—is clear: “From the spiritual point of view the only important thing is to realise the Divine Life and help others to realise it by manifesting it in every-day happenings. To penetrate into the essence of all being and significance and to release the fragrance of that inner attainment for the guidance and benefit of others, by expressing, in the world of forms, truth, love, purity and beauty—this is the sole game which has intrinsic and absolute worth. All other happenings, incidents and attainments in themselves can have no lasting importance” (Meher Baba, Discourses). Where is this artist? Where is the one who displaces nothing, who works everywhere, walking through all fronts, beginning with her own, indifferent to the distance between reaching so high and stooping so low? No one has seen her.  And to repeat the words is not practical. “If I tell you one of the sayings she spoke to me, you will pick up rocks and stone me, and fire will come from the rocks and devour you."

SO: For beings who have no place to be, where (else) is there to go? “But what the mind does not believe, the heart does. And in the end the intellect does, too; what else is left for it to do?” (Klima, Glorious Nemesis).





Tuesday, June 14, 2016

S.U.M.



The sound of sorrow is the sorrow of sound. Now what is sorrow but the feeling that one is? As it says in The Cloud of Unknowing:
All men have grounds for sorrow [mater of sorow], but most specially he feels grounds for sorrow who knows and feels that he is. In comparison to this sorrow, all other kinds of sorrow are like play. For he can truly and really sorrow who knows and feels not only what he is, but that he is. And whoever has not felt this sorrow, he may make sorrow, because he has never yet felt perfect sorrow.[i]
Or as Heidegger affirms—in the more self-mollifying register of modernity, in the mood which characteristically wants both to soften and to own the BLOW from which no one ever recovers—“the being of Da-sein is care [Sorge].”[ii] And what is sound but the being of this sorrow, the reverberation of the fact of being in all things, the Da-sein of matter that—existently inexistent and existently inexistent—is the ground of its own sorrow?
            One need not look very far or listen very long to unveil sound as the sorrow of being and the being of sorrow. If that were necessary it would not be true. If more than pointing were required it would not be there. “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow” (Lamentations 1:12). And if you do not see, if one cannot hear the sorrow of all that is seen, that indeed is a sorrow, as the Cloud-author makes clear. In all directions one is met with the Silent Universal Moan or SUM, an ‘undead’ continuity of sorrow and sound that moves like a chord strung by death’s portal across the vast abysses of birth. SUM resounds with the superessential negativity of the will, with the original negation that, negating itself, causes anything at all to be. As Eugene Thacker hears it, via Schopenhauer, it is “a kind of sound that is absolutely subsonic. It is a negation of sound that negates itself, while it never is totally absent. It is a negative sound that is omni-present and yet un-manifest.”[iii] SUM is the unsound that becomes mournfully audible around Orpheus’s disjoined body, in the uncountable moments when individualized dying life merges into the stream from whence it came:   
      Orpheus’ limbs
lay scattered, strewn about; but in your flow,
you, Hebrus, gathered in his head and lyre;
and (look! a thing of wonder) once your stream
had caught and carried them, the lyre began
to sound some mournful notes; the lifeless tongue,
too, murmured mournfully; and the response
that echoed from the shores was mournful, too.[iv]
And SUM is the universal unrest and mass commotion of matter-life-thought, the overflowing echo of their Beyond in and around immateriality of the material: “The condition of the world, the strife and uncertainty that is everywhere, the general dissatisfaction with and rebellion against any and every situation shows that the ideal of material perfection is an empty dream and proves the existence of an eternal Reality beyond materiality.”[v] SUM is the humming and murmuring of the uncircumscribed, a trembling of the lips of being’s eventless event that testifies—by saying nothing—to the non-difference between the negative infinity of the will and the sonic abyss of the universe. Continuous with the primal words of all traditions, the sorrow of SUM is also not not twisted into a smile, the spontaneous shape of the origin and end of the worlds of mind, energy, and matter in Reality’s infinite whim or unanswerable question of itself. The sound of sorrow is the sorrow of sound.



[i] The Cloud of Unknowing, ed. Patrick J. Gallacher (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1997), ch. 44, my translation).
[ii] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. Stambaugh (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), 262.
[iii] Eugene Thacker, “Sound of the Abyss,” in Melancology: Black Metal Theory and Ecology, ed. Scott Wilson (Winchester, UK: Zero, 2014), 190.
[iv] Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. Allen Mandelbaum (New York: Harcourt, 1993), 361 (XI.50-3).
[v] Meher Baba, The Everything and the Nothing (Beacon Hill, Australia: Meher House Publication, 1963), 55.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

On the Sound of Purgatory



E’en then, when from its neck of marble torn,
His head Oeagrian Hebrus bearing down
Its central current rolled, “Eurydice,”
The voice itself and death-cold tongue—alas!
His poor Eurydice with fleeting breath
Was calling still.
– Virgil, Georgics, IV.523-6 (trans. Sewell)

The capacity of Orpheus’s severed head to sound among the living from beyond the threshold of death indexes a dimension of voice and sound, or more properly an indetermination of the two, which may be defined as purgatorial. As the poet’s words make clear, it is not the person here who speaks but voice itself [vox ipsa], less the sonic presence of a being than the more uncanny call of the very slipping away of its soul or life [anima fugiente]. This liminal sound, voiced at once through and without the tongue that articulates it, is purgatorial in several senses: 1) in connection to the Orphic desire to save a beloved from the death’s underworld; 2) in its connotation of a self-purifying spiritual suffering at/of the limits of being; and 3) in its hyper-actual virtuality, the weird or haunting phenomenal immanence of something in the seeming absence of its own possibility. So the question arises, what is the relation between sound and Purgatory? How does Purgatory, the traditional space of solidarity and communication between the living and the dead, pertain to the nature of sound? How does this paradigmatic “third place” as Luther called it, a dimension characteristically neither provable nor deniable and persistent within modern culture in the undead forms the medieval imagination, belong to what this volume’s editors call “the broader vibrational continuum of which perceptible sound is only a subset . . . a third dimension in which the real and the imagined . . . bleed into one another”?[1]
Purgatory—a state between damnation and blessedness, a place between time and eternity, an afterlife intersecting this one—is a monument to the metaphysical creativity of the premodern imagination, all the more so because its concept is founded on the reality of the imaginal—the whole subtle world and ‘stuff of dreams’ wherein the visible and invisible, the corporeal and the intellectual, substantially meet. This relation between Purgatory and the imaginal is germinally present in St. Paul’s reference to salvation through something like, or as if, fire: “If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire [quasi per ignem]” (1 Corinthians 3:15). This passage, which “played a crucial role in the development of Purgatory in the Middle Ages,”[2] encapsulates both the functional paradox of purgatory as a kind of saving hellfire, one that preserves by consuming, and its ontological ambivalence, its being, like the image, something at once within and beyond the world, a movement or energy found in the expansive and mobile experiential middle of things which is no less subjective than objective, no less out there than in here. Similarly, medieval discourse on purgatory revolved around its ambivalence as both place and state. Bonaventure writes, “As for the state of purgation, this corresponds to an indeterminate place [locus indeterminatus] in relation to us and in itself.”[3] Dante’s Purgatory, an island orogeny in the southern hemisphere caused by Lucifer’s fall to the center of Earth, finds itself at the summit of this ambivalence. Here the truth of purgatory and the truth of poetry converge in a reality as concrete as it is fabulous, a geography of the imagination in both senses. So at the beginning of the first canto of Purgatorio, the poet indicates the purgatorial domain as the ground of poetry’s own resurrection—“But here let dead poetry rise again” (Purgatorio, 1.7). Significantly, as his invocation of the epic muse Calliope makes clear, this resurrection is not only spiritual but specifically sonic: “and here let Calliope arise somewhat, accompanying [seguitando] my song with that sound [suono] of which the wretched Magpies so felt the blow [colpo] that they despaired of pardon” (Purgatorio, 1.9-12).[4]
Befitting the inherent doubleness and ontological indeterminacy of the imaginal, which is always vibrating somewhere between object and subject, in the indistinction of species and phantasm, the relationship between sound and Purgatory is marked by a significant ambivalence and coincidence of opposites.[5] On the one hand, following Paul’s concept of purifying fire as well as the effect of Calliope’s song upon the Pierides who presumptuously challenged it, purgatorial sound is the sound of a fire and fire of a sound which at once punishes the individual for and saves him from his works, as if from without. Such is the penitential sonicity of the spiritual fire in which the troubadour Arnaut Daniel, wounded by lust, sorrowfully sings himself into the joy of paradise: “‘I am Arnaut, who weep and go singing; with chagrin I view my past folly, and rejoicing I see ahead the joy I hope for . . .’ Then he hid himself in the fire that refines them” (Purgatorio, 26.142-8). On the other hand, purgatorial sound is the sound of resurrection and the resurrection of sound as the divine aspect and fruition of an individual’s work, the heavenly reverberation of “mio canto” [my song] and thus poetry as the spiritual work of one’s work, the work of salvation which saves one from oneself. Such is the sonicity of the trembling of the mountain and the consequent sense-exceeding shouting of souls at the moment of the poet Statius’s completion of his five-hundred-plus-year period of purgation:
I felt the mountain shake like a falling thing, and a chill seized me such as takes him who goes to death . . . Then on all sides began a shout so loud that my master drew close, saying: “Fear not, while I am guiding you.” “Gloria in excelsis Deo! They were all saying, as I grasped from those close by, from whom the shouting could be understood. (Purgatorio, 20.127-38)
Synthesizing the penitential and resurrective poles of purgatorial sound into something trembling at the threshold of representation, the central sonic image in Dante’s Purgatorio, which shows the pilgrim’s experience of the sound of its very gate, is paradoxically thunderous and harmonious, harsh and sweet:
Then he [the angel] pushed open the door of the blessed gate, saying: ‘Enter; but I warn you that whoever looks back must return outside.’ And when the pins turned in the hinges of that sacred palace, pins made of strong, resonant metal, Tarpeia did not roar so nor seem so harsh . . . I turned attentive to the first thunderclap, and I seemed [mi parea] to hear voices, singing ‘Te Deum Laudamus,’ blended with the sweet sound. The image [tale imagine] rendered in what I heard was exactly what one perceives when there is singing with an organ so that now one understands the words, now not [or sì or no]. (Purgatorio, 9.142-5)
As if echoing with both the roaring superessential voice of God to be heard at the end of time (Revelation 14:2) and the angelic harmony of the cosmic spheres whose motion is time itself, this paradigmatic sound of purgatory, at once a sound passed through and the sound of that passage, is something audible at the threshold of time and eternity. Likewise the hymn here sung speaks of the universal opening whose event is the Crucifixion: “When thou hadst overcome the sting of death, Thou didst open [aperuisti] to believers the kingdom of heaven.”[6] And yet this salvific opening, as the common analogy emphasizes, is nothing abstract or otherworldly, but a palpable intensity located in the negative continuity of sonic seeming, in the intangible space between voice and hearing, the moving indistinguishability of words and music. Just as, in the Christian economy of salvation, one may be saved at the last minute by “one little tear [una lagrimetta]” (Purgatorio, 5.107), so the essential sound of Purgatory is crucially a movement within the moment of human experience. Furthermore, the poet conspicuously aligns this momentariness with the instantaneous event of the image within the sphere of hearing, implying a continuity between the Purgatory’s gate and the senses known to William Blake: “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is: infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”[7]
Like a sonic intensification of the dialetheia of the image, which is always both true and false, both what is seen and what is not, the resonance of purgatorial opening is something heard and grasped in a movement that must, like Orpheus returning with Eurydice from the underworld, not look back—except, of course, through the special retrospective lens of poetry as a privileged labor of love which, inspired from above, is saved from its own oblivion. For only the poetic image, itself always both true and false, can enter and pass through the mirror of the imaginal realm, without breaking it as it were. Only the musico-fictive third of sound and word can speak to and from the depths, touching what is otherwise invisible, like the self-doubling purgatorial voice of Poe’s Valdemar:
In the first place, the voice seemed to reach our ears—at least mine—from a vast distance, or from some deep cavern within the earth. In the second place, it impressed me (I fear, indeed, that it will be impossible to make myself comprehend) as gelatinous or glutinous matters impress the sense of touch. I have spoken both of “sound” and “voice.” I mean to say that the sound was one of distinct—of even wonderfully, thrillingly distinct—syllabification . . . I had asked him . . . if he still slept. He now said: “Yes;—no;—I have been sleeping—and now—now—I am dead.”[8]
“What abyss is this that calls, and to what other abyss?” asks Augustine, pondering the depths of the heart.[9] The abyss opened up by purgatorial resonance of poetry is the sound of the present itself as the perpetual, poetic opening between time and eternity, the intersection of the nunc fluens, the temporal now that passes and the nunc stans, the eternal now that stands. This intersection is not a point, not an instant, but an opening, a dilation: “For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:14)—its narrowness and hardness being not only the steepness of ethical and spiritual becoming, the need for renunciation and not looking back, but more immediately the continuous and ever-dilating nature of the gate itself which, reverberating with a spontaneous and unmasterably positive/negative sound, demands a proportionate spontaneity of doing and not-doing, a daring-still pace that can quickly-slowly keep time with the spontaneous rhythm of the eternal or trace the style of God.[10] Thus the deeper horror to which Poe’s story gives voice is not the fear of whether there is or is not an eternity somewhere over the rainbow, but the terror of its being here now, actually present in the midst of time and too close for the comfort of all-too-temporal human identities. Correlatively, Orpheus’s failure is not only the failure of a moment, the error of wayward desire and accompanying worry or fear that reduces life to time via a fraudulent virtuality, through the “craving [which] falsifies the operation of the imagination.”[11] His looking back is more intensively the loss of the present itself, its shrinking to an instant, as Ovid’s words make clear:
                                    But at last,
they’d almost reached the upper world, when he,
afraid that she might disappear again    
and longing so to see her, turned to gaze
back at his wife. And once [protinus] she slipped away [relapsa est]—
and down. His arms stretched out [intendens] convulsively
to clasp and to be clasped in turn, but there
was nothing but the unresisting air.[12]
Here the lover here loses his beloved all over again in a movement that beautifully embodies the very nature of the living present which his intention, in seeking to grasp it, negates. As Eurydice’s slipping away or relapse is itself an instance of the immediately infinite momentum or continuously forward movement of time (pro-tinus, literally a reaching forward or onward), so does Orpheus’s futile embrace figure the stretching of the present into the now. If only Orpheus had used his ears rather than his eyes. If only one would hear the here-and-everywhere (hic et ubique) purgatorial words of Hamlet’s ghost as the lesson of life and not of death—a lesson on par with the locally non-local nature of sound—and thus swear, not “Never to speak of this that you have seen” (Hamlet, 1.5.160), but with the poets to sound the this that is ever seen, the first and ever-present image of all perception which simply is, as Bonaventure says, pure divine being (purissimum esse):
How remarkable . . . is the blindness of the intellect which does not take note of that which it sees first, and without which it can know nothing. But just as the eye, when it is concerned with the variety of colors, does not see the light through which it sees other things . . . so the eye of our mind, intent as it is on particular and universal beings, pays no attention to that being which is beyond every genus even though it is that which first comes to the mind, and it is through this that all other things are known. . . . Accustomed as it is to the darkness of things and to the phantasms of sensible objects, when the mind looks upon the light of the highest being, it seems to see nothing. And it does not understand that this darkness itself is the highest illumination of our mind.[13]
To pass through Purgatory, to cleanse (by passing through) the rusty doors of perception opening to infinity, involves hearing a sound that follows one ahead into forever, a music which, moving backwards and forward in time, is the reverberation of the present as something to be simultaneously lived and remembered, that is, experienced in the full-emptiness and empty-fullness of its ever-dilating nature. As Meher Baba says, “Live more and more in the Present which is ever beautiful and stretches away beyond the limits of the past and the future,”[14] and, “Remember the present in the frame of the past and the future.”[15]
            Unbounded by its theological doctrine, the sonicity of Purgatory stretches historically beyond medieval ghost stories and prayers for the dead, backwards into the speaking severed heads of antique and hagiographical legend and forwards into the spectral voices of modern surrealism and horror.[16] What is at stake throughout this domain is the interface between sound/voice and the outside of time, an interface unveiled in the deep presence of sound, in its being, through its very movement, something both within and beyond time and space. Overall, the sound of Purgatory is the resonance of a new order of here, an anagogic place, like the “today” of Paradise promised to the good thief (Luke 23:43), already present and to-come. Whence the radically immanent yet individualized call of Saint Edmund’s severed head: “Ubi es? ecce, mirabile auditu, caput martyris patria lingua respondebat dicens, Heer, Heer, Heer; quod est interpretatum, Hic, Hic, Hic” [Where are you? Behold, marvelous to hear, the head of the martyr responded in his native language, Heer, Heer, Heer, which is to say, Here, Here, Here]. [17] Marking the place of being in terms of the temporally threefold moment of utterance, the martyr’s head gives witness to itself as something present at the crossroads of voice and sound, something speaking simultaneously as the spiritual presence of a living identity (the here of an eternal soul) and as the material resonance of a severed head in the woods (the here of a no one), without being reducible to either. Thus, between the poles of the severed head’s utterance, we may hear the presence of a third thing, something that is counted in the verbal repetition but not by it, something less graspable because all-too-present, the rhythm of a life without beginning or end. In a complimentary way, Eleni Ikoniadou speaks of the “concept of rhythm” as belonging “to the middle, unleashing the relational potentialities of the notion of the gap and mocking the idea of distance as a void.”[18] The idea of Purgatory resounds with a future beyond temporality, beyond the division of life and death. As Chateaubriand observed, “Purgatory surpasses heaven and hell in poetry, because it represents a future and the others do not.”[19] If this is a fire worth losing one’s head over, it is because the promise of friendship or love—with anyone and/or Reality itself—depends upon it. As Blake testifies: “I have tried to make friends by corporeal gifts but have only / Made enemies: I never made friends but by spiritual gifts, / By severe contentions of friendship, and the burning fire of thought.” [20]






[1] The obscurity of the fact of Purgatory is expressed as follows in the second Appendix to the Aquinas’s Summa Theologica: “it is sufficiently clear that there is a Purgatory after this life . . . Wherefore those who deny Purgatory speak against the justice of God . . . Nothing is clearly stated in Scripture about the situation of Purgatory, nor is it possible to offer convincing arguments on this question” (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province [New York: Bezinger Brothers, 1947], 3022-3). Similarly, before rejecting the doctrine, Martin Luther wrote, “The existence of a purgatory I have never denied. I still hold that it exists, as I have written and admitted many times, though I have found no way of proving it incontrovertibly from Scripture or reason” (Luther’s Works, Volume 32 [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957], 95). On purgatory in the modern world, see Richard K. Fenn, The Persistence of Purgatory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Jerry L. Walls, Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); and Stephen Greenblatt, Hamlet in Purgatory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013).
[2] Jacques Le Goff, The Birth of Purgatory, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 43.
[3] Bonaventure, Commentaria in librum quartum Sententiarum, Quaestio II, quoted in Le Goff, The Birth of Purgatory, 253-4.
[4] Dante Alighieri, Purgatorio, ed. and trans. Robert M. Durling (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).
[5] The place of purgatory in the history of Western music is correlatively double-sided. One the one hand, purgatory, as the theological ground of intercession for the dead, is a monumental potential of musical creativity. In the medieval period, “Purgatory encourage[d] endowments supporting polyphony” and influenced the musical development of votive Masses (Barbara Haggh, “The Meeting of Sacred Ritual and Secular Piety: Endowments for Music,” in Companion to Medieval and Renaissance Music, eds. Tess Knighton and David Fallows [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992], 64). Most prominently, the requiem mass “realized a privileged status in music history . . . [exercising] a prominent influence upon subsequent musical styles, both sacred and profane” and “Throughout the seventeenth century, musical settings of the requiem mass spread like wildfire as hundreds of new settings were composed” (Robert Chase, Dies Irae: A Guide to Requiem Music [Landham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2003], xv-xvii).  On the other hand, the post-Reformation demise of the doctrine of purgatory was itself impetus for musical invention, for the development of alternatives to the requiem mass and new musical forms in the context of “the Reformation [which] saw many of the sounds of death removed,” most conspicuously the death knell (Dolly MacKinnon, “’The Ceremony of Tolling the Bell at the Time of Death’: Bell-ringing and Mourning in England c. 1500-c.1700,” in Music and Mourning, eds. Jane W. Davidson and Sandra Garrido [London: Routledge, 2016], 34). The doubleness of this reflexive relation between music and purgatory is reflected in Luther’s famous reverence for music as “next to theology” and recognition of its spiritual power: “For we know that music is odious and unbearable to the demons . . . [music] alone produces what otherwise only what theology can do, namely, a calm and joyful disposition” (quoted in Robin A. Leaver, “Luther on Music,” in The Pastoral Luther: Essays on Martin Luther’s Practical Theology, ed. Timothy J. Wengert [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009], 271, 285).
[6] The Hymns of the Breviary and Missal, ed. Matthew Britt (New York: Benziger, 1948), 14-6.  
[7] William Blake, Complete Poetry & Prose, ed. David V. Erdman (New York: Doubleday, 1988), 39.
[8] Edgar Allen Poe, “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” in The Complete Tales and Poems (New York: Vantage, 1975), 101.
[9] Augustine, Expositions on the Pslams, 42.12, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1801042.htm.
[10] On the ‘narrow gate’ as the ever-present dilation of present found in the absence of worry, see Nicola Masciandaro, “The Sweetness (of the Law),” in Sufficient Unto the Day: Sermones Contra Solicitudinem (London: Schism, 2014), 6-42.
[11] Meher Baba, Discourses, 6th ed., 3 vols. (San Francisco: Sufism Reoriented, 1967), I.143.
[12] Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. Allen Mandelbaum (New York: Harcourt, 1993), 327 (X.55-9).
[13] Bonaventure, Itinerarium Mentis in Deum, trans. Zachary Hayes (Saint Bonaventure, NY: Franciscan Institute, 2002), 115.
[14] Meher Baba, The Everything and the Nothing (Beacon Hill, Australia: Meher House Publication, 1963), 37.
[15] Meher Baba, Not We But One (Balmain, Australia: Meher Baba Foundation, 1977), 52.
[16] See Jean-Claude Schimitt, Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in Medieval Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998); Asa Simon Mittman, “Answering the Call of the Severed Head,” in Heads Will Roll: Decapitation in the Medieval and Early Modern Imagination, eds. Larissa Tracy & Jeff Massey (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 311-27; Robert Mills, “Talking Heads,” in Disembodied Heads in Medieval and Early Modern Culture, eds. Catrien Santing, Barbara Baert, and Anita Traninger (Leiden: Brill, 2013); Isabella van Elferen, Gothic Music: The Sounds of the Uncanny (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2012); and Allen S. Weiss, “Death’s Murmur,” chapter 2  of Breathless: Sound Recording, Disembodiment, and the Transformation of Lyrical Nostalgia (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2012). 
[17] Abbo of Fleury, Passio Sancti Eadmundi, cited from Corolla Sancti Eadmundi, ed. Lord Francis Harvey (London: John Murray, 1907), 566.
[18] Eleni Ikoniadou, The Rhythmic Event: Art, Media, and the Sonic (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014), 87-8.
[19] Quoted as epigraph in Le Goff, The Birth of Purgatory.
[20] William Blake, Complete Poetry & Prose, 251.

Friday, June 03, 2016

pNEuMenOn



A spontaneous telegrammatic lyric sequence. Undersea ditties of love and despair.  

Split into one like all else | There’s nothing special | About a lost heart that melts | The fires of hell.

The alternate universe | Where this is published | Is probably worse | Than this one—I wish. 

"I imagine a reading of pNEuMenOn on a rooftop in New York City. Jozef van Wissem playing his lute in the background, seated next to a statue of the Virgin Mary. An audience standing in an oval around the poet and lute player, and twelve rows of cushioned white seats—no one sitting in them—garnished with silver cords reaching into the heavens." — Brad Baumgartner






Sunday, May 08, 2016

The Miracle of the Sigh


[opening statement for Reading the Sigh]


If I sigh for the miraculous, for the beauty that takes breath away in wonder, maybe it is because the sigh itself is a miracle. And if it is not, if as the song says, a sigh is just a sigh, perhaps that is the miracle, that a sigh, to be miraculous, need not be anything other than itself.
The miracle of this gathering is that we get to hear and speak the sighs of Dante and Hafiz together, to have them, side by side, in the same room.
Dante died in 1321. Hafiz was born in 1325. So this is something that could never have happened. Or, in light of the mystery of reincarnation, properly identified by one anonymous author as “in no way a theory which one has to believe or not believe . . . a fact which is [to be] either known through experience or ignored” (Meditations on the Tarot), this may be something that could never have not happened. Thus who knows, this gathering might be both and something better than either, the miracle of a third thing, the event of the presence of one in whose name two or three gather.
The impossible is inevitable. And in this case, there is also lightning, a striking resemblance. Above all, the greatness of these two poets, the height and depth of their sighs, belongs to the sphere of intense experience, ecstatic and torturous, of the intersection of human and divine love, more specifically, the noble love of a woman and the love of God. For Dante, it was the death of Beatrice which marked the center of his poetry’s turning toward the divine. Only from the abyss of sorrow and the poet’s death to himself within it does there spring the miraculous vision of the Commedia, the potentiality of a truly new poetry, of a word that authentically writes itself now, in light of the eternal present. As Dante states near the end of the Vita Nuova, “And to arrive at that, I apply myself as much as I can, as she truly knows. So that, if it be pleasing to Him for whom all things live that my life may last for some years, I hope to say of her what was never said of any other woman.” For Hafiz, the death of his beloved instead takes place virtually, in experience, upon the imminence of the long-sought moment when he could finally realize his desire. Where the death of Dante’s beloved is the ground of seeking her in God, Hafiz’s earthly love is eclipsed by desire for the divinity that grants him the opportunity to fulfil that love. With uncanny complementarity, the two poets’ experiences appear as different as they are similar. Hafiz’s story is recounted by Meher Baba as follows:
Once in his youth, Hafiz encountered a very beautiful girl of a wealthy family. That very instant he fell in love with her; it was not in the carnal way, but he loved her beauty. At the same time, he was in contact with his Spiritual Master, Attar, who himself was a great Persian poet. Hafiz, being Attar's disciple, used to visit him daily for years. He used to compose a ghazal a day and sing it to Attar. . . Twenty years passed and all this time Hafiz was full of the fire of love for the beautiful woman, and he loved his Master, too. Once, Attar asked him: “Tell me what you want.” Hafiz expressed how he longed for the woman. Attar replied: “Wait, you will have her.” Ten more years passed by, thirty in all, and Hafiz became desperate and disheartened. . . . Hafiz blazed out: “What have I gained by being with you? Thirty years have gone by!” Attar answered: “Wait, you will know one day.” . . . Hafiz performed chilla-nashini, that is, he sat still within the radius of a drawn circle for 40 days to secure fulfillment of his desire. It is virtually impossible for one to sit still for 40 days within the limits of a circle. But Hafiz’s love was so great that it did not matter to him. On the fortieth day, an angel appeared before him and looking at the angel’s beauty, Hafiz thought: “What is that woman’s beauty in comparison with this heavenly splendor!” The angel asked what he desired. Hafiz replied that he be able to wait on the pleasure of his Master’s wish. At four o’clock on the morning of the last day, Hafiz . . . went to his Master who embraced him. In that embrace, Hafiz became God-conscious. (Lord Meher)
Following love’s infinity in the face of the finite, through the domain of death, the poetry of Dante and Hafiz fills the space traversed by longing, the degree or mode of love which moves between desire and surrender, the form of eros that at once insists on satisfaction and grasps the futility of that insistence. As the word of the word of love, the tongueless articulation of the heart before and after speech, a murmuring of the heart as mouth around the spiritual limits of language, the sigh is the proper expression of longing, of desire across distance and the hopelessness of separation. Thus the sphere-piercing spatiality of the sigh, its mapping of the paradoxical parameters of the heart as something both excluded from and already established within its own home. Like a breath at the edge of the universe which is no less one’s own, the sigh traces the heart as no less exterior than interior, as both trapped within and containing what holds it. Augustine defines the heart as “where I am whoever or whatever I am [ubi ego sum quicumque sum]” and love as “my weight [which] bears me wheresoever I am borne [pondus meum, amor meus; eo feror, quocumque feror]” (Augustine, Confessions). So the sigh, echoing simultaneously one’s first and last breath, both the spirit which animates you in the first place and the expiration which becomes no longer yours, pertains to an essential openness and mobility, the unbounded wherever and wheresoever of things.
This for me is the sigh’s miracle—not anything supernatural, but that it marks the miracle of reality itself as infinitely open, as spontaneously expanding without limit or horizon into more and more of itself. Hear how, on the one hand, a sigh resonates with the sense of the weight of facticity and necessity, the crushing gravity of that (that things are as they are, that anything is, that something is not) and hear, on the other hand, how a sigh floats in the space between the actual and the ideal, in the sky of its own indetermination and freedom. The suspension of the sigh, its hovering, pertains to the paradox of freedom as realizable yet unpossessable, the necessity of freeing oneself from oneself, from one’s own freedom, in order to be free. As Meister Eckart says, “The just man serves neither God nor creatures, for he is free,  . . . and the closer he is to freedom . . . the more he is freedom itself.” The sigh is the dialetheia of freedom and necessity, the joy (and sorrow) of knowing that nothing is fixed and the sorrow (and joy) of seeing that it everything is—that thank God there is absolutely nothing and everything you can do about it. As Vernon Howard said, referring to yourself, “you want to take that to Heaven?”  
The admixture of joy and sorrow found in the sigh reflects the miraculous fact, the light weight and grave lightness, of reality’s paradoxical openness. As Agamben says in The Coming Community, “The root of all pure joy and sadness is that the world is as it is.” The intimacy with separation spoken in the sigh likewise manifests separation as a special order of intimacy. As Mechthild of Magdeburg, a Beguine of the 13th century says, “O blissful distance from God, how lovingly am I connected with you!” Or as Meher Baba once spontaneously rhymed, “Oh, you ignorant, all-knowing Soul / what a plight you are in! / Oh, you weak, all-powerful Soul / what a plight you are in! / Oh, you miserable, all-happy Soul / what a plight you are in! / What a plight! / What a sight! / What a delight!” (Lord Meher).
We are indeed in a fiX, in a spot marked by a great, unfathomable X. Such is the order of the truth of the sigh. That the mystery of the world is more than metaphysical. That not only is there something rather than nothing, but that one is. That there is not only eternity but time, not only good but evil, not only truth but illusion, not only oneness but separation, not only the universe but the individual, not only you but me. These are astonishing things, stupendous facts pointing to a reality more stupendous still. All is somehow more infinite for being finite. In other words, there is something about the sigh that turns everything inside out. I hear Levinas sighing as he writes, “Time is not the limitation of being but its relationship with infinity. Death is not annihilation but the question that is necessary for this relationship with infinity, or time, to be produced.”
The opening of the world, in both senses, is poetry, the miracle of the word which takes you aside and makes one hear its silence and speak what one cannot say. Thus the singular story in the Gospel of Mark of Jesus’s sigh: “And they brought to him a man who was deaf and had an impediment in his speech; and they besought him to lay his hand upon him. And taking him aside from the multitude private, he put his fingers into his ears, and spat and touched his tongue; and looking up to heaven, he sighed, and said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’ And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly” (Mark 7:31-4).
                Therefore, to close my opening of this gathering, to thank the sigh for making possible our being side by side with these two poets, I will read a poem by a third poet, one Pseudo-Leopardi, on the same theme: 

Unable to swim the ocean of each other’s eyes
We must sit side by side, gazing at a blind world
Whose dumb mouth has lost all taste for silence.

Heads dizzy as ours naturally lean together,
Kept from falling off only by the golden sighs
Suspending these bodies like puppet strings.

The soft tautness of the secret lines is thinning us,
Sweetly drawing all life-feeling inward and up
Into something pulling strongly from far above.

There is no doubt that the sigh-threads will one day
Draw our hearts right through the tops of our heads,
Eventually turning everything totally inside out.

Already my body is something much less my own,
As if the thought of your form is my new skeleton
And your memory of my flesh your new strength.

If I embrace you my own power would crush me
And if you cling to me I would surely evaporate.
Dying lovers do not touch without touching suicide.

Side by side we float and stand. It is our way of lying
Bound together across space on this lost world
Whose eyes will not survive seeing us face to face.

Friday, April 08, 2016

Reading the Sigh




Reading the Sigh

Beyond the sphere that circles widest / passes the sigh that issues from my heart.
– Dante

The arrow of our sigh has shot beyond the revolutions of creation—Hafiz, be silent.
– Hafiz

Flowing between life and breath, suspended inside voice and word, flying the bonds of desire and the bounds of thought, pre-living the fleeting moment of death—is there anything a sigh cannot touch, nothing its arrow will not pierce? At once phenomenon and figure, the sigh is both a companion to all expression and a secret language unto itself. “And my thick sighs a mystick language prove, / Unknown to all but me and him I love” (Herman Hugo, Pia desideria). So, if the love of poetry and the poetry of love are unthinkable if not impossible without the sigh, perhaps this follows not only from the necessity of sighing to our biological and psychological life (as per recent neuroscientific research), but from a greater mystery and universal truth of sighing itself. For medieval poets and mystics, the sigh of the human heart, an “innate passion of the soul proceeding from a suspension of spirit” (Boncompagno da Signa, Rota Veneris), might traverse the cosmos and communicate with its Creator, the divine Reality whose love, as Ibn Arabi held, is “in actual fact the Sigh of God Himself epiphanized in beings and yearning to return to Himself” (Henry Corbin, Alone with the Alone). In its universality, the sigh is a form of the oneness of life and thus also the proper term and actual medium of the spiritual unity of human beings. As Meher Baba said in 1933, on Easter Sunday at a chapel in Portofino, “The sigh within the prayer is the same in the heart of the Christian, the Mohammedan, or the Jew.” Nowadays, in a narrow upside down world suspended within an always darker and vaster universe, it might seem that our sighs have nowhere to go. As Cioran wrote in A Short History of Decay, “We perceive no more of Creation than its destitution, the grim reality . . . a lonely universe before a lonely heart, each predestined to disjoin and to exasperate each other in the antithesis.” Or is such a view only a too-common cowardice, the shrinking of the heart before what Kierkegaard calls “This . . . road we all must walk—over the bridge of sighs into eternity”? Has the universe really expanded, or is it only the sigh—your sigh—which has shrunk? Either way, it is best to follow the words of Muhammad Iqbal, whose Dante-inspired masterpiece Javid Nama [Pilgrimage of Eternity] takes the path of the poet’s “peregrino spirito” [pilgrim spirit] through the spheres: I am a sigh, I will mount to the heavens!

This event features two lectures on the significance of the sigh in the works of two medieval poetic masters: Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) and Hafiz of Shiraz (1325-89). A musical performance will follow.

Franco Masciandaro, “Dante’s Sighs.”
Peter Booth, “Sighs in the Realm of Love’s Infinity.”
Dijwar Karaman, santoor 

Peter Booth received his B.A. in English Literature from Bard College and studied Persian Language and Literature at the graduate school of Harvard University (with Anne Marie Schimmel and Wheeler Thackston). In 1977-8, on a scholarship from the Shah of Iran, he studied Persian Literature at Ferdowsi University in Mashhad. He was a resident for 32 years in Avatar Meher Baba’s Home, “Meherabad” in rural India. He is currently completing a detailed study of the poetry of Hafiz of Shiraz with numerous new translations.

Franco Masciandaro (Ph.D., Romance Languages and Literatures, Harvard University, 1971) is Professor Emeritus at the University of Connecticut and a specialist in medieval and renaissance Italian literature. He is the author of La problematica del tempo nella Commedia (Longo Editore, 1976), Dante as Dramatist:  The Myth of the Earthly Paradise and Tragic Vision in the Divine Comedy (Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1991), La conoscenza viva: Letture fenomenologiche da Dante a Machiavelli (Longo, 1998), and The Stranger as Friend: The Poetics of Friendship in Homer, Dante, and Boccaccio (Firenze University Press, 2013).

Reading the Sigh is organized by Nicola Masciandaro, Oyku Tekten, and the KAF Collective.

Suggested reading: Nicola Masciandaro, “Following the Sigh,” in Sufficient Unto the Day (Schism, 2014); Kristina Savin, “Sighs of Desire: Passionate Breathing in Medieval and Early Modern Literature,” in Pangs of Love and Longing (Cambridge Scholars, 2013); Erwin W. Strauss, “The Sigh: An Introduction to a Theory of Expression,” Tijdschrift voor Philosophie 14 (1952); Karl Halvor Teigen, “Is a Sigh ‘Just a Sigh’?”  Scandinavian Journal of Psychology 49 (2008).

Friday, May 6 at 6 PM
PUNTO, STUDIO D, 325 W. 38th Street, Storefront #3