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

Friday, April 01, 2016

To Become Purposeless: A Failure

Whoever seeks or aims at something is seeking and aiming at nothing, and he who prays for something will get nothing. – Meister Eckhart 
I’ll have every appearance of a failure, and only I will know if that was the failure I needed. – Clarice Lispector 
I instruct you to fail. – Vernon Howard 
Well it’s not like I am getting any better, so I might as well try. – Bo Earle 
The purpose of this essay is to shed purpose by commenting on a statement which was given by Meher Baba on October 13, 1960 and published three years later in The Everything and the Nothing under the heading “Purposelessness in Infinite Existence”:  

Reality is Existence infinite and eternal.
Existence has no purpose by virtue of its being real, infinite and eternal.
Existence exists. Being Existence it has to exist. Hence Existence, the Reality, cannot have any purpose. It just is. It is self-existing.
Everything—the things and the beings—in Existence has a purpose. All things and beings have a purpose and must have a purpose, or else they cannot be in existence as what they are. Their very being in existence proves their purpose; and their sole purpose in existing is to become shed of purpose, i.e., to become purposeless.
Purposelessness is of Reality; to have a purpose is to be lost in falseness.
Everything exists only because it has a purpose. The moment that purpose has been accomplished, everything disappears and Existence is manifested as self-existing Self.
Purpose presumes a direction and since Existence, being everything and everywhere, cannot have any direction, directions must always be in nothing and lead nowhere.
Hence to have a purpose is to create a false goal.
Love alone is devoid of all purpose and a spark of Divine Love sets fire to all purposes.
The Goal of Life in Creation is to arrive at purposelessness, which is the state of Reality.[1] 
I will begin with three points of explanation, scaffolding for the unfinishable cathedral. 

First, my interest in reflecting on this passage is sparked by Eldritch Priest’s participative theory of failure vis-à-vis experimental music in Boring Formless Nonsense:

[Experimental] music, my ostensible subject, finds its way into this failing scheme through tactics of duration, distraction, and duplicity; devices of (dis)engagement that characterize the operational purview of a post-Cagean experimental music community whose members have the peculiar privilege to toy with the intensity of failure, and as such, to draw insights and observations about failure from “failure.” In this sense, as a member of this same community, the failure ascribed to the music that I discuss here is a failure that describes my own discussion of the music. Its failure is my failure, a strange loop that lets me be both knight and knave, right and wrong, sincere and full of shit. It is a way to show how failure lives out the way one lives in contradictions: the way one finds interest in boredom, form in formlessness, and sense in nonsense.[2] 
Priest’s work on/of failure will thus serve as an exegetical ami or go-between, the friend through whom love of the truth of Meher Baba’s statement, a.k.a. Lady Purposelessness, may be intellectually consummated and thus also a mediating agent who, like purpose itself (or a priest for that matter), must withdraw from the scene of experience as its purpose is fulfilled. In fact—uncannily proving Eldritch’s secret wish to perform this role—the concepts of purpose and priest etymologically intersect, pur-pose being something ‘put forth’ and priest being either an ‘elder’ (from presbyter)—alas not related to eldritch—or ‘one put over others’ (from prevost, praepositus). Where Reality has the status of that which is older than or inescapably set over oneself, whether one will or no, and where purpose has the status of what one would realize, the futural aim of will, the realization of Reality itself is perforce an event in which prepositionality and finitude dissolve. Here the “Whence?” and “Whither?” of things—identified by Meher Baba as “the two everlasting and poignant queries which make the human mind divinely restless”[3]—are no more and/or become something else. Now the aiming of the will, its need to realize something, and the authority of Reality, its priestly or prior position, simultaneously vanish and/or become each other. As Meister Eckhart says, “It is a certain and necessary truth that he who resigns his will wholly to God will catch God and bind God, so that God can do nothing but what that man wills.”[4] If this strikes the ear as too eldritch, recall that the practical application could not be more clear or consequential, it being the establishment of the already all-too-obvious fact that no one has anywhere to go. As Meher Baba explained in 1937,

My panacea to the worried world is the effort on its part to get an answer to the question “Whither and Whence.” The knowledge that all have the same beginning and the same end, with life on earth a happy interlude, will go a long way in making the brotherhood of man a reality on earth, and this, in turn, will strike at the root of narrow communalism and rigid nationalisms, which mean wars and economic exploitation.[5] 
This is an interlude. The cure is your effort for a real answer. Says Priest, “how one finds oneself feeling about the type of situation that one (already) finds oneself in is always a mood of Dasein’s originary failure. Strictly speaking, existence is a series of moody failures.”[6] Accordingly, the practice of failure begins, like the Franciscan theory of poverty, from the ‘right’ to fail, to own the possessionless fact that success is not of this world. Says Priest, “At stake in this right to fail is the value of aesthetic negativity, the value to pursue practices that seek intensity rather than a purpose in experience.”[7] As poverty à la Saint Francis was defined as a “spontaneous abdication of ownership for God’s sake” [spontanea propter Dominum abdicacio propretatis] which, by separating use and ownership, speculatively tunes life to its prelapsarian state,[8] so the discipline of failure occupies, by holding open the zone between utility and purpose, an originary fallenness of unlimited potential. Hopelessness + Helplessness = Happiness. 

Second, the context in which Meher Baba made the statement on purposelessness is significant, more so as this is the only instance of the word “purposelessness” in his works. It was a period of intense inner work, fasting, and physical suffering, not to mention the 35th year of his silence. Baba had contracted a herpes zoster or shingles infection while bowing down to lepers the previous month.[9] The infection affected the right face, ear, and tongue, causing fevers, intense pain, as well as sores in the mouth and throat which made eating “almost impossible.”[10] Earlier in the day on October 13th, Baba “complain[ed] of a ‘screwing’ type of pain inside his right ear that made him feel as if he were now going deaf.”[11] Eventually, after three weeks without food, a nerve block injection was administered through the temple with uncanny ease and speed, to the astonishment of the doctor who felt himself to have “become, at that time, nothing but completely a channel, entirely in his hands, without any thought of myself as a separate entity.”[12] The pain, after vanishing, and afterward becoming worse than ever, eventually subsided toward year’s end. Throughout this period, Meher Baba exhibited an intense and unprecedented indifference, which was described as a “nerve-shattering experience” for his companions and disciples.[13] On December 10th, Eruch Jessawala summed up the situation in a letter to his family as follows:

He has terrible pain all over his body, but he does not tell us what it all is. From all outward appearances he looks to be terribly in pain, and he makes us feel that he is much interested in being disinterested. He has totally left [given up] taking any interest in anything whatsoever. It seems that he has not only stopped speaking by observing the SILENCE, but has now apparently stopped hearing, seeing, feeling, eating and drinking, sleeping & breathing! He does not even move about in the compound.
In short, he is not taking any exercise or walking and, therefore, his appetite for food and water is at present 100% nil. He has brought everything to a standstill as far as he is directly concerned physically. We, of course, are ignorant of what is truly going on within him. There might be a volcano fully active!
He appears to be absorbed in something very serious and, along with his unique silence, he has obviously silenced all activities immediately around him. He does not want to hear anything and he does not want to see anything, nor take part in the sort of conversation we usually hold while we sit near him . . . The atmosphere around Meherazad is charged with a kind of intense “stillness”—not inactivity (far from it!) but a sort of HUSH personified. 
Far from attempting to explain this deep state of indifference, I will carry it as a commentarial key (a device whose functioning remains secret) to unlock the tower wherein Lady Purposelessness resides. The protracted atmosphere of this enduring, distracting, and dissimilitudinous indifference resonates silently with the idea of failure as a living-out of contradictions found in experiences of boring formless nonsense. For Bhau Kalchuri, the sense of contradiction was compounded by the difficulty of writing to silence. 

During those days, Bhau felt as if a thunderstorm were bursting over his head. Baba showed his aversion to him and would not allow him to come near him. At night, Bhau would be on watch, and during the day he would remain in his room writing. He was working on Hindi ghazals at the time (later titled Meher Geet Suda [Songs of Meher’s Wine]), but Baba was totally indifferent toward his efforts. Bhau felt as if Baba’s days were numbered and his life was coming to an end. All the mandali felt similarly. Becoming indifferent to all, Baba made them interested in his disinterestedness.[14] 
Says Priest, “if I am to do what I am about to do . . . without actually dying the death of absolute silence, I should really stop writing and let a little nihilism loose on my words. However, it is clear by this point that I won’t.”[15] Such going on without the power to or not to is also homomorphic with play as the endless end one does when there is nothing to be done. Accordingly, Meher Baba’s indifference revealed itself most conspicuously in games, in the midst of activities which are their own purpose:

To try to bring his attention back to everyday things, the men and women mandali urged him to take part in card games, carrom and seven tiles, but when he played, he played without the least interest. During a card game, he would suddenly throw down the cards and quit; in the midst of a game of seven tiles, when it was his turn to throw, he would drop the ball and look away. When playing a game of carrom, he would aim anywhere.[16] 
Here distraction intensifies indifference, the play providing not engagement but a means for new forms of disengagement, paradoxically spontaneous actions of withdrawal, aiming anywhere. Says Priest, “failure as a term of art becomes . . . one that evades those structures of thought and expression that impose themselves as obligatory, but which at the same time is only conceivable and sensible through those same structures.”[17]
Let’s play this game. On the day Meher Baba made the statement on purposelessness, a baseball player with the initials B.M. appropriately did the reverse, hitting the first walk-off and ‘greatest of all time’ home run in the seventh game of the World Series—a play that wins and brings the game to an end without finishing it. Mystically, this home run signifies the soul’s passage to the seventh plane of consciousness, the event of Self-realization and attainment of union with the divine Beloved which is both end and beginning. As Augustine says, in commentary on Psalm 104.4, “Seek his face always, let not the finding of the beloved put an end to the love-inspired search; but as love grows, so let the search for the one already found become more intense.”[18] Or Eriugena: “since that which human nature seeks and toward which it tends, whether it moves in the right or the wrong direction, is infinite and not to be comprehended by any creature, it necessarily follows that its quest is unending and that therefore it moves forever. And yet although its search is unending, by some miraculous means it finds what it is seeking for: and again it does not find it, for it cannot be found.”[19] Like a ball hit out of the park, into a paradise far beyond the walled garden of Eden—O felix culpa! In fact, once during a cricket game with the Prem Ashram schoolboys in the late 1920s, a ball hit by Meher Baba did not fall to earth, leading him to explain to his dumbfounded playmates that there is an exception to every rule.[20] Also on October 13, 1960, three black mice were launched in a rocket to an altitude of 700 miles and afterwards recovered alive in the nose cone, becoming the first living creatures to survive a trip of that distance into outer space. Clearly, these three critters embody the seemingly impossible possibility of the survival or preservation of gross, subtle, and mental consciousness after God-realization, or in Quentin Meillassoux’s terms, the immanence of the world beyond, namely, the advent of a fourth world, of justice, from and including the three emergent worlds of matter, life, and thought. “In order to have access to genuine immanence, we have . . . to think a world that is no longer our world wedded to biological mortality. . . . Immanence is transcendence which has become impossible in the absence of finitude.”[21] Correlatively, Meher Baba affirms the eternality of individuality: “When the soul comes out of the ego-shell and enters into the infinite life of God, its limited individuality is replaced by unlimited individuality.  The soul knows that it is God-conscious and thus preserves its individuality.”[22] This extra possibility, wherethrough the finite as it were inherits itself as more infinite than infinity, may be called the gift of losership. Following Agamben’s remarks in The Coming Community, it corresponds in form to the halo: “One can think of the halo . . . as a zone in which possibility and reality, potentiality and actuality, become indistinguishable. The being that has reached its end, that has consumed all of its possibilities, thus receives as a gift a supplemental possibility.”[23] This is the domain, precisely, of a radical play, of a spontaneity confounding the distinctions between freedom and necessity, cause and chance. Where play, from the PIE root dlegh (‘to engage oneself,’ cf. indulge), signifies self-engagement, a player’s engagement is defined no less by indifference than by interest, just as “a perfect man functions with complete detachment in the midst of intense activity.”[24] Whence the failure of the person who is too interested in a game to play it—the cheat, for example. As Coomaraswamy notes, “The activity of God is called a ‘game’ precisely because it is assumed he has no ends of his own to serve; it is in the same sense that our life can be ‘played,’ and that insofar as the best part of us is in it, but not of it, our life becomes a game. At this point we no longer distinguish play from work.”[25] The self-engagement of play, in this ideal sense, is the interested activity of a sovereignly indifferent self. “[T]he essence of my self,” writes Bataille, “arises from this—that nothing will be able to replace it: the feeling of my fundamental improbability situates me in the world where I remain as though foreign to it, absolutely foreign.”[26] Play occupies indifference, a place where the world is already ended, cleared of my possibilities. It engages not merely me but the self itself, the innumerable and unaccountable principle of my spontaneous being in a world that places me outside it. Who teaches you to play, if not this otherness of oneself? Who makes the game worth losing? At a gathering in 1955, Meher Baba told the following story to a visitor who did not approve of others “play[ing] cards when they are here to learn of God”:

What has playing cards to do with one’s love and longing for God? . . . Shams Tabrezi and his famous disciple Moulana Rumi were both very fond of playing chess. Shams’ greatest work was done at the end of a game of chess with Rumi. When Rumi lost the game, he could not help crying out to Shams, “I have lost.” Then and there, with the words, “No, you have won,” Shams gave Rumi instant God-realization.[27] 
Winning beyond-within the game, Rumi’s victory shows that playing cards has nothing to do the love of God because it has everything to do with it, and vice-versa. Properly speaking, Rumi wins the apotheosis of play itself, its moment fulfilling in one stroke all dimensions of Roger Caillois’s four-by-two classification. In his disappointed desire to win, there is agôn. In receiving victory from forces beyond his control, there is alea. In becoming like Shams, there is mimicry. In surpassing himself, there is ilinx. And on the side of Shams’s work, there is both the freedom and unconditioned whimsy of paidia and, in the ordered inversion of play itself, there is the necessity and regularity of ludus.[28] In the sheer nonsense of Shams’s words is the highest sense of a fact made so by pure negative fiat, accomplished in the production of its own contradiction. Indifference and spontaneity are twins.[29] We may see the moment as secretly planned, the mysterious calculus of a Perfect Master, but that only increases rather than diminishes the necessity of not losing the sense in which Shams spontaneously makes all of Rumi’s dreams come true precisely through an absolute divine indifference to his loss, an indifference that, like a leaping spark, causes the one it touches to win everything by losing nothing, losing the nothingness of there being nothing to lose. Here one must think Rumi’s win as pure loss, as perfectly intensive failure, just as salvation is the realization that there is no one to save. Thus the emphasis—“Then and there”—in Meher Baba’s expression, in accordance with the intensive pronoun in one of his other articulations of this perennial truth: “We must lose ourselves in order to find ourselves; thus loss itself is gain.”[30] So in Nietzsche’s words, “Something that has failed should be honored all the more jealously, precisely because it has failed.”[31] In sum, the indifference of the eternal Reality, the deafening silence of the Truth which masters us and makes all knowledge of it other than itself ignorance, is the vertiginous pole of the whirlpool of experience wherein “everything pertaining to the spiritual seems paradoxical.”[32] What is it like to play chess with Lady Purposeless? Something like life I imagine. Game over. 

Third, a lover needs not only a friend and a key, but a method of communicating with his beloved, which for this commentary is, of course, commentary. And it is just the thing to the trick. For the “devices of (dis)engagement” which govern the aesthetics of failure also pertain to commentary itself, whose word (via comminisci, to devise, invent) captures the sense of a contrivance that opens through division, dilating the text via digressions which deepen its significance by delaying it, developing the fullness of meaning by splitting every unit of sense into text and co-text. Commentary, an inherently unfinishable form, is marked by “tactics of duration, distraction, and duplicity” that align it with failure, and no less, the failure of failure, the failure of failure to fail. A hermeneutic proliferation of opening closures and closed openings, commentary “accomplishes nothing and so becomes capable of everything.”[33] On the one hand, commentary sees itself as nothing, nothing without its object as a perfect self-explicating order wherein everything is immanently there to be discovered via the always-already accomplished universality of Truth. As Christ’s dying but not last words are “it is finished” (John 19:30), so is the cross, according to a metaphor as venerable as Augustine, the “key” for unlocking all the mysteries of Scripture.[34] Since truth does not have to be produced, since reality does not have to be brought from anywhere, scripture—and by extension all authoritative or thought-worthy art—is both key to the lock and lock for the key of scripture.  Thus Jerome begins his homily on the first of the Psalms, “The psalter is like a stately mansion that has only one key to the main entrance. Within the mansion however, each separate chamber has its own key. Even though the great key to the grand entrance is the Holy Spirit, still each room without exception has its own smaller key.”[35] The modern, historically constituted analog of this paradigm is Walter Benjamin’s method of montage in the Arcades Project, which seeks totality in the citational order of commentary itself:

The first stage in this undertaking will be to carry over the principle of montage into history. That is, to assemble large-scale constructions out of the smallest and most precisely cut components. Indeed, to discover in the analysis of the small individual moment the crystal of the total event. . . . To grasp the construction of history as such. In the structure of commentary.[36] 
On the other hand, commentary—as Benjamin’s method also implies—sees itself as everything, an ultimate and anagogic art capable of flying to the heavens, of even becoming revelation or divine writing itself. And so, building itself like the Tower of Babel, commentary produces its ruinous stack of foundations, a self-multiplying profusion of senses and meanings which, ever verging on a total mutual confusion of locks and keys, edifice and scaffolding, paradoxically works to erase the margin or sacred threshold between text and commentary that is place of their living relation and the potentiality of commentary itself. Whence Saint Francis’s prohibition of commentary on his Rule and Agamben’s incisive diagnosis of “the loss of the commentary and the gloss as creative forms” as indicative of a situation in which “there is a truth, without the possibility of transmitting it . . . modes of transmission, without anything being either transmitted or taught.”[37] Eventually one throws up one’s hands with—or rather cites—Montaigne: “we do nothing except gloss each other. Everything swarms with commentaries; of authors there is a great lack.”[38] Eventually you just get angry with—or quote—Jean-Luc Nancy: “A moment arrives when one can no longer feel anything but anger, an absolute anger, against so many discourses, so many texts, that have no other care than to make a little more sense, to redo or perfect delicate works of signification.”[39] One must, then, maintain at once the everythingness and the nothingness of commentary, hold both of its hands and follow it as a purpose leading only to its own purposelessness. As Augustine says, “The fruit of faith [is] understanding, so that we may arrive at eternal life, where the Gospel would not be read to us, but he who has given us the Gospel now would appear with all the pages of reading and the voice of the reader and commentator removed.”[40] For what is “all our so-called consciousness” but, as Nietzsche called it, “a more or less fantastic commentary on an unknown, perhaps unknowable, but felt text”?[41] 

And so, arriving finally at this failure to begin, I see that there was nowhere to go in the first place. Or as John Cage wrote in a composition of/on purposelessness made during the period of Meher Baba’s indifference and published in the 1961 collection Silence, “I take a sword and cut off my head and it rolls to where we are going.”[42] There, out of this world, I pick it up—inside are three blind mice. “What a plight! What a sight! What a delight!”[43]


[1] Meher Baba, The Everything and the Nothing (Beacon Hill, Australia: Meher House Publications, 1963), 62.
[2] Eldritch Priest, Boring Formless Nonsense (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), 28-9.
[3] Meher Baba, Discourses, 6th ed., 3 vols. (San Francisco: Sufism Reoriented, 1967), I.43.
[4] Meister Eckhart, The Complete Mystical Works, trans. Maurice O’ C. Walshe (New York: Herder & Herder, 2009), sermon 10, p.92.
[5] Messages of Meher Baba, Delivered in the East and West, ed. Adi K. Irani (Ahmednagar, India: Meher Baba Universal Spiritual Centre, 1943), 8. Cf. “Well, the grand thing about the human mind is that it can turn its own tables and see meaninglessness as ultimate meaning. I have therefore made a lecture in the course of which, by various means, meaning is not easy to come by even though lucidity has been my constant will-of-the-wisp. I have permitted myself to do this not out of disdain of you who are present. But out of regard for the way in which I understand nature operates. This view makes us all equals—even if among us are some unfortunates: whether lame, blind, stupid, schizoid, or poverty-stricken. Here we are. Let us say Yes to our presence together in Chaos” (John Cage, Silence: Lectures and Writings [Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1961], 195).
[6] Priest, Boring Formless Nonsense, 16.
[7] Priest, Boring Formless Nonsense, 27.
[8] See Giorgio Agamben, The Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Form-of-Life, trans. Adam Kotsko (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013), 113, quoting Hugh of Digne.
[9] “The next day [October 6, 1960], his condition was diagnosed by Don and Goher as herpes zoster, and they speculated that he had contracted the infection when bowing to the lepers and poor in September. The ailment was to continue to plague Baba for the next month and a half. Although he was extremely uncomfortable, he remained absorbed in his seclusion work” (Bhau Kalchuri, Lord Meher: Online Edition, 4719,
[10] Lord Meher, 4723.
[11] Lord Meher, 4720.
[12] As Dr. Ram Ginde recalls, “I was much surprised as to what I had done. Well, actually, he had cured himself! If you believe me, you see I had become, at that time, nothing but completely a channel, entirely in his hands, without any thought of myself as a separate entity, because I still do not know how I did it and what had happened! I have no knowledge even to this day, because the needle just went in, within half a minute it was in the nerve, I injected the alcohol, it was blocked, and the whole thing, like a drama, was finished in less than five minutes” (quoted in Lord Meher, 4727).
[13] Meherwan Jessawala writes, “It was the first time that I had seen Baba so completely withdrawn within himself . . . It would be so painful for us. We never saw him this way, as if for the first time Baba had lost his sense of humor, which had never happened before. It was an extremely distressing atmosphere. He said he was having tremendous pressure of work, ‘You have no idea what I am suffering.’ Such stray remarks he would make. It was sort of a nerve-shattering experience [for us]” (Lord Meher, 4722-3).
[14] Lord Meher, 4722.
[15] Priest, Boring Formless Nonsense, 98.
[16] Lord Meher, 4721.
[17] Boring Formless Nonsense, 2.
[18] Augustine, Expositions of the Psalms, trans. Maria Boulding, 6 vols. (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2003), 5.186.
[19] Eriugena, Periphyseon, PL 122:919, translation cited from Bernard McGinn, The Growth of Mysticism: Gregory the Great through the 12th Century (New York: Crossroad, 1994), 118. 
[20] I recall hearing this story from Minoo Kharas in Meherabad, India in 1991.
[21] Quentin Meillassoux, “The Immanence of the World Beyond” in The Grandeur of Reason: Religion, Tradition, and Universalism, ed. Conor Cunningham and Peter Candler (London: SCM Press, 2010), 469.
[22] Meher Baba, Discourses, II.174.
[23] Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, trans. Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 55.
[24] Meher Baba, Discourses, I.33.
[25] Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, “Play and Seriousness,” in Selected Papers, Volume 2: Metaphysics, ed. Roger Lipsey (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), 158. Cf. ““[T]he very cause of the universe . . . is also carried outside of himself . . . He is . . . enticed away from his transcendent dwelling place and comes to abide within all things, and he does so by virtue of his supernatural and ecstatic capacity to remain, nevertheless, within himself” (Pseudo-Dionysius, The Complete Works, trans. Colm Luibheid and Paul Rorem [New York: Paulist Press, 1987], 82).
[26] Georges Bataille, Inner Experience, trans. Leslie Anne Boldt (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988), 69.
[27] Meher Baba, Listen, Humanity, narrated and edited by D. E. Stevens (New York: Harper Colophon, 1967), 30.
[28] See Roger Caillois, Man, Play and Games, trans. Meyer Bayash (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010).
[29] As recognized in the principle of divine creation, which Meher Baba compares to the spontaneous process of waking: “no rhyme, no reason and no cause other than the original, infinite whim of the absolutely independent God was the actual Cause—the original cause—for God in the original divine sound sleep state to wake up out of the unbounded, original vacuum” (Meher Baba, God Speaks, 101-2).
[30] Meher Baba, God Speaks (New York: Dodd, Mead &Co., 1973), 288, my emphasis.
[31] Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, trans. Anthony M. Ludovici (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2004), 28.
[32] Meher Baba, God Speaks, 288.
[33] Nicola Masciandaro and Reza Negarestani, “Black Metal Commentary,” in Floating Tomb: Black Metal Theory (Milan: Mimesis, 2015), 214.
[34] “Our Lord’s cross was like a key for opening what was locked away” (Augustine, Expositions of the Psalms, 2.310).
[35] Jerome, The Homilies of Saint Jerome: Volume 1 (1-59 On the Psalms), trans. Sister Marie Liguori Ewald (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1964), 3.
[36] Walter Benjamin, Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambrdige, MA: Belknap, 1999), 461.
[37] Giorgio Agamben, Infancy and History: On the Destruction of Experience, trans. Liz Heron (London: Verso, 2007), 160. See Nicola Masciandaro, “The Severed Hand: Commentary and Ecstasy,” English Language Notes 50.2 (2013): 89-98. 
[38] “Il y a plus affaire à interpreter les interpretations qu’à interpreter les choses, et plus de livres sur les livres que sur autre subject: nous ne faisons que nous entregloser. Tout fourmille de commentaires; d’auteurs, il en est grand cherté” (Montaigne, Essais, III.13,
[39] Jean-Luc Nancy, The Birth to Presence, trans. Brian Holmes (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), 5.
[40] Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John, 22.2, cited from Henri de Lubac, Medieval Exegesis: The Four Senses of Scripture, trans. E. M. Macierowski, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids, Ml: Eedmans, 2000), 2.188-89.
[41] Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality, ed. Maudemarie Clark and Brian Leiter
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 78).
[42] Cage, Silence, 195.
[43] “During the gathering on 13 July 1959, Baba revealed: ‘The Soul’s knowing that it knows everything is dnyan. This means the all-knowing experience of the Soul is dnyan. The Soul says: “Now I know that I know everything.”’ Therefore, the all-knowing Soul’s not knowing that it knows was pure imagination.’ Baba then 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, 4561).

Friday, February 19, 2016

Of a leden hewe: Darkness, Impotentiality, and the Mystical in Chaucer

I’ll have every appearance of a failure, and only I will know if that was the failure I needed.
– Clarice Lispector[1]

This essay takes up the question of Chaucer’s relation to mysticism by considering what it means to not be a mystic.  The understanding of mysticism here developed draws on a variety of medieval and non-medieval sources: Giorgio Agamben, Augustine, Meher Baba, Bonaventure, John Climacus, The Cloud of Unknowing, Dante, Pseudo-Dionysius, Meister Eckhart, Eriugena, John of the Cross, Clarice Lispector, Pyrrho, and Richard of St. Victor. The argument falls into seven sections. In the first section, I examine Geffrey’s withholding of his name in the House of Fame in light of the principles of individuation and impotentiality. In the second, I show how Chaucer’s figuration of poetic creativity is connected to apophasis, self-forgetfulness, and decreation. In the third, I argue that Chaucer’s non-mysticism it itself mystical in the sense of being a passively active suspension of mysticism, a mysticism of impotentiality. In the fourth, I explicate the connection between mysticism and impotentiality in the context of medieval concepts of mystical sorrow. In the fifth, I demonstrate significant intersections between the poet’s self-portrayal and affects of mystical contemplation, with comparison to the Black Knight in the Book of the Duchess. In the sixth, I show how the essential form of Chaucer’s poetry intersects with the divine image. In the seventh, I suggest that the Canon’s Yeoman figures most clearly the dark relation between Chaucer’s poetry and the labor of mystical becoming.

[1] Caveat lector. This essay earned the following reader's reports from an academic journal. 'I have to confess that I can’t find many strengths in this article, though others of a more theoretical turn of mind might do so. It takes its starting-point from Chaucer’s refusal to name himself in the House of Fame, a difficult moment that can still bear more exegesis.  The abstract offers a substantial list of authorities the article is going to cite, both medieval and modern, and they are indeed cited, though very few are discussed in any detail; and in practice, Agamben is the dominant inspiration and theorist for the article. Many of its medieval citations too tend to be filtered through him.  Its conclusion, that Chaucer is not a mystic, would seem unexceptionable (though even that is hedged about with negatives); its immediate justification, that “God is in love with His image in the mirror”, seems rather odder. The main weakness as I see it – though again, others might like it – is that almost every sentence in the whole article (and it really is as dense as that) is framed as either a double (occasionally triple) negative or a self-cancelling paradox.  The very first paragraph is typical of the whole, with its references to “negatively maximal sufficiency”, “a namedness that does not lose the anonymous”, “escaping the reverse affirmation of I will not tell you who I am” etc.  This is justified by a reference to Agamben’s idea of “a zone of indistinction between yes and no”, but it remains very unclear just how this might apply to Chaucer, or to any concept of his mysticism or non-mysticism.  This kind of vocabulary/ argument might at some point be interesting if it were done in terms of apophasis or the dark night of the soul, but there is almost never any sense of what the terminology here might mean in terms of mysticism itself – nor indeed is any definition of mysticism ever offered, so, for instance, its third section, arguing that “Chaucer’s non-mysticism is itself mystical”, carries no apparent heft.  Its favoured vocabulary is accordingly impotentiality, decreation, non-recognition, “possible impossibility”, “tetragrammatonic tautology”.  This can work when such concepts come embedded within quotations from the mystics themselves, but the attempt to deploy them within a context of academic prose just doesn’t work. The section headings – “Ex nihil-know”, “Not not mysticism”, “Tearless tears” etc – don’t help. I read through it hoping that it would finally make a point somewhere, but it seems to be aiming at something different: the repeated assertion of the space between knowing and not knowing in relation to Chaucer and everything else that gets mentioned, in a way that seems to aim at turning academic discourse itself into deliberate non-meaning. So I can’t recommend publication, and it seems to be beyond hope of recovery – though again, other readers might respond very differently' (Anonymous).  'It lacks coherence and intellectual rigour in its use of both medieval and modern theory: it is clear to me that the author really knows nothing about what they call mysticism. Wildly different strands of medieval contemplative theory get plaited together and then mashed up with similarly ill differentiated strands of modern theory. I don't see it saying anything useful or helpful or illuminating about Chaucer and find it to be written in a self-indulgent argot of theory-speak that sounds like the worst excesses of the late 1980s. I love the House of Fame and agree that the naming passage is a key moment. But there is no attempt to engage with the many fine studies of that passage and the other Chaucerian moments that are discussed. I wouldn't touch it with a barge pole, though I consider myself deeply sympathetic to all kinds of theoretical approaches. At root, everything it says about contemplative theory in the Middle Ages is philosophically and theologically illiterate. I equally feel that the use of modern epistemology is clumsy and misguided. Chaucer can be very profitably approached through many modern cultural theories but this is just too promiscuous and scattergun to make any sort of compelling case. And I'm unpersuaded that anything helpful is being achieved by seeing GC through this version of Agamben. I'm at a loss to know how you would go about making it publishable, except to invoke the old Irish saying "if I was going there I wouldn't start from here!" I'm really sorry not to be of more use. I kept reading and hoping that the penny would drop, but eventually came to the conclusion that there was no penny to drop' (Anonymous).