Monday, October 24, 2016

Notes and Quotes on the The Gaze

Who can fix a limit to the gaze? Who will dare to define it scope, point out its center, or draw a circle around its sphere? As far as I can see, everyone turns away. Where? To the gaze.

On the one hand, the gaze is limitless, extending in all directions, further than the eye can see. “The self,” says Ibn Arabi, “is an ocean without shore. Gazing upon it has no end in this world and the next.”

On the other hand, the gaze is nothing, nothing but itself, a zero through which only another I is looking. “All creatures are absolutely nothing,” says Johannes Tauler, “That which has no being is nothing. And creatures have no being, because they have their being in God; if God turned away for a moment, they would cease to exist.”

Is my gaze my own? Yes and no. I look, yet cannot see myself. I am seen, yet none sees me. Is that you, looking back at yourself in the mirror? No and yes. The gaze is the mirror of the gaze, every look a reflection of itself. Where would I be, what would become of you—everything—if that which sees and is seen by seeing, vision’s own visibility, were blotted out, blinded? If the gaze through which we gaze shut its eyes? “Do not separate from me,” says Hafiz, “for you are the light of my vision. / You are the peace of my soul and the intimate of my heart.”

I see that one is always turning toward and turning away, turning away from what one turns toward, turning toward what one turns away from. What an endless revolution, the restless conversion of the still, ever-spinning eye. Zoom in on planet pupil, a little nothing meaning all, suspended in its own universal reflection, projecting and filming everything through the point, the navel of itself. Is your gaze born from you or you from your gaze? “I believe,” says Dante in Paradiso, “because of the sharpness of the living ray that I sustained, that I would have been lost if my eyes had turned away from it.”

Admit it, the gaze is really too much. Who can withstand it? No one shall see me and live. That must be why Narcissus never stops spontaneously lying to himself about his reflection, never ceases to fall in love with his own image, seeing neither that it is an image nor his. If you are me then who am I? If I am me then who are you? Perpetual predicament of the illusion that sustains reality. As Meher Baba once 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!”

How eternally precious those passing moments, when the gaze opens itself a little more and sees, by some unfathomable magic or trick of the abyss which if you gaze long into it gazes back into you (N), that the image is no less in love with Narcissus. As Francis Brabazon said, “And so one arrives at the painful conclusion that the Beloved alone exists—which means that oneself doesn’t. And that’s a terrible predicament to find oneself in—for one is still there! The only solution I found was to accept the position: ‘You alone are and I am not, but we are both here.’”

Whose gaze is that? What eye calmly turns itself towards the gaze of the real, penetrating the sight of life, which is death to the living? It would seem as if the person who possesses this look also cannot sustain it. Are not saints, or the truly beautiful, forever ashamed of their own eyes? Here is a passage from Meher Baba to fall in love with: “A wali . . . has the power to open the third eye and grant divine sight, if he is in the mood. He can do so by simply looking into the eyes of the aspirant, even if the aspirant is at a distance. When the third eye is opened, all is light . . . It is so powerful an experience that the recipient either goes mad or drops the body . . . One type of wali is called artad. They are very, very few, quite rare. They are very fiery, with piercing eyes that break through anything, even mountains! Their gaze is sufficient to cut an animal in two, hence they always keep their eyes on the ground. That too is split apart.”

If the gaze splits, surely that is because it is without number, because the manyness of our eyes only sees by reflecting one. Thus the individual neither sees nor is seen by unity without being cut in two. Consider this as the principle of honesty or natural self-discernment. I am only whole, authentic, truthful, when I see how double, how dark to myself I am, when eye see myself seen by seeing itself. “Look not upon me, because I am black, because the sun hath looked upon me” (Song of Songs 1:6).

Imagine a map of all vision, a long tracing of its every line, individual and collective, from the beginningless beginning to the endless end, from the earliest emergence of anything to its final absolute evaporation. A one-to-one map scaled to the continuum of seeing itself, all of its sleeps and wakings, every stop and start across the seas of every kingdom of being, in short, from stone to human. What does it look like? In his Dialogue on the Two Principle Systems of the World, Galileo, in order to explain how “this motion in common [i.e. the motion of the earth] . . . remains as if nonexistent to everything that participates in it,” conceives the figure of an artist who draws, without separating pen and paper, everything he sees while sailing from Italy to Turkey: “if an artist had begun drawing with that pen on a sheet of paper when he left the port and had continued doing so all the way to Alexandretta [Iskenderun], he would have been able to derive from the pen's motion a whole narrative of many figures, completely traced and sketched in thousands of directions, with landscapes, buildings, animals, and other things. Yet the actual real essential movement marked by the pen point would have been only a line; long, indeed, but very simple. But as to the artist's own actions, these would have been conducted exactly the same as if the ship had been standing still” (Galileo Galilei). Is not the real hero of the story the hyper-saccadic story of the eye? Now raise that to the power of itself ad infinitum. What a line!

More locally, the gaze concerns the duration and depth of seeing, the extensity and intensity of its time and space. Gazing not only looks but looks beyond looking, exploring the very surface of vision as a dimension otherwise than surface. The gaze sees by seeing into seeing itself, in both senses at once. No need for a map, the gaze directs itself. As Merleau-Ponty explains, the focus of the gaze, through which we establish the qualities of objects by interrupting them from “the total life of the spectacle,” operates through an essential reflexivity: “The sensible quality, far from being coextensive with perception, is the peculiar product of an attitude of curiosity or observation. It appears when, instead of yielding up the whole of my gaze to the world, I turn toward this gaze itself, and when I ask myself what precisely it is that I see; it does not occur in the natural transactions between my sight and the world, it is the reply to a certain kind of questioning on the part of my gaze, the outcome of a second order or critical kind of vision which tries to know itself in its own particularity.”

So we are led back, willy nilly, to the essential gravity of the gaze as an exponent of will, to looking as the weight of the love of a being who is its own self-consuming question. But what of the one whose will is annihilated? “To those in whom the will has turned and denied itself,” says Schopenhauer, “this very real world of ours, with all its suns and galaxies, is—nothing.”

What does the gaze that sees nothing see? “And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he saw nothing” (Acts 9:8).

I trust that both Dante and Hafiz agree that this gaze sees not only nothing, but everything. As their contemporary Meister Eckhart says, “A man who is established thus in God's will wants nothing but what is God's will and what is God . . . Even though it meant the pains of hell it would be joy and happiness to him. He is free and has left self behind, and must be free of whatever is to come in to him: if my eye is to perceive color, it must be free of all color. If I see a blue or white color, the sight of my eye which sees the color, the very thing that sees, is the same as that which is seen by the eye. The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me: my eye and God's eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing and one love.”

This makes me want to see what these two poets might see looking into each other. For both are so well versed in the mystery of the unitive doubleness of vision experienced in the gaze, wherein the two-ness of the eyes becomes one. As Hadewych explains, “The power of sight that is created as natural to the soul is charity. This power of sight has two eyes, love and reason. Reason cannot see God except in what he is not; love rests not except in what he is. Reason has its secure paths, by which it proceeds. Love experiences failure, but failure advances it more than reason. Reason advances toward what God is, by means of what God is not. Love sets aside what God is not and rejoices that it fails in what God is. Reason has more satisfaction than love, but love has more sweetness of bliss than reason. These two, however, are of great mutual help one to the other; for reason instructs love, and love enlightens reason. When reason abandons itself to love's wish, and love consents to be forced and held within the bounds of reason, they can accomplish a very great work. This no one can learn except by experience.”

And I am looking forward to this encounter all the more, not only because, as Vernon Howard says, “Anything you look forward to will destroy you, as it already has,” but because what is seen between the gazes of these two poets will no doubt be something neither could see—the beauty of a spark leaping between the eyes of two no-ones.

As Hafiz says, “اهل نظر دو عالم در یک نظر ببازند” [Men of sight can lose both worlds in one glance]. Or as Love tells Dante in the Vita Nuova, “Ego tanquam centrum circuli . . . tu autem non sic” [I am as the centre of a circle . . . you however are not so].

Friday, June 03, 2016


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

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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.