January 15, 2014

Poetry: The Language of Mystics

The language of mystics and the language of poets bear similarities. Paradox, metaphor, accumulating parallel syntax, negations, and silence are techniques used for the ineffable, for saying what cannot be said. In The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance, Dorothee Soelle describes the obstacle of language itself when it comes to describing a mystical experience. Ecstasy comes from the Greek word, ek-stasis, meaning to stand alongside or step outside. In the multiplicity of experience, among a commotion of things, the mystic experiences unity and peace. This experience has been named in different ways: wonder, joy, awe, amazement. Soelle says, “language is incapable of communicating the experience of oneness.” As Teresa of Avila says in her prayer: “Lord, give me other words.” These other words that mystics and poets use are so moving:
Written by a fourteenth century anonymous monk to instruct others in contemplation, The Cloud of Unknowing, seems to be based on the premise that it is impossible to know God, that the experience is best described as the Cloud of Unknowing.:  
When I say ‘darkness,’ I mean a privation of knowing…which is between you and your God….If ever you come to this cloud, and live and work in it, as I bid you, just as this cloud of unknowing is above you, between you and your God, in the same way you must put beneath you a cloud of forgetting, between you all the creatures that have ever been made.

A simple awareness of anything under God, which forces itself upon your will and consciousness, puts you further away from God that you would be if it did not exist; it hinders you and makes you less able to feel, by experience, the fruit of his love.”
His language fascinates me. The negation of "knowing" allows for more meanings and interpretations. Unknowing might refer to that which is not necessarily related to the mind or thinking: intuition, believing, sensing, ecstasy. Instead of certainty and clarity, it offers us a metaphor of the ephemeral, shifting, restless, and obscure. In order to find the Cloud of Unknowing, one must also achieve a cloud of forgetting for everyday irritations and woes. The author gives advice as to how to describe a spiritual experience: 
For no matter how spiritual a thing may be in itself, yet when we come to speak of it, since speech is bodily exercise performed with the tongue, which is an instrument of the body, it is necessary that bodily metaphors be used [as these words, up or down, in or out, behind or before, on one side or on the other]. But should it on that account be interpreted and understood bodily? No, spiritually.
A fourteenth century monk knows that nothing is more vivid that writing that engages the body!

In the next excerpt by Mechthild von Magdeburg (1207-1282), a Beguine, The Flowing Light of the Godhead the sentences repeat and extend: 

Our salvation has become a bridegroom. The bride is intoxicated with gazing on the noble face. In the greatest strength she comes out of herself, and in the greatest blindness she sees with the greatest clarity. In the greatest clarity she is dead and alive at the same time. The longer she is dead, the more merrily she lives. She more merrily she lives, the more she learns. The smaller she becomes, the more abundance she receives. The richer she becomes, the poorer she is. The deeper she dwells, the broader she is. The more imperious she is, the deeper her wounds become. The higher she rages, the more loving God is toward her. The high she soars, the nearer she comes to the Godhead, the more beautifully she shines with the reflection of the Godhead. The more she works, the more softly she rests. The more she comprehends, the stiller her silence…..Ah whither is our Savior-bridegroom being conveyed in the jubilation of the holy Trinity? Since God no longer wanted to be in himself, he made the soul and gave himself to her out of great love. Of what are you made, soul, that you rise so high over all creatures, and mingle with the holy Trinity and yet remain wholly in yourself?—You have spoken of my origin, now I tell it to you truly: I was made in that place from love, therefore no creature can satisfy me according to my noble nature, and no creature can unlock me, except love alone.
This book, written over several years since she was the age of twelve is a collection of diverse prayers, reflections, short aphorisms, conversations, narrative pieces. Not much is known about this women, except that she wrote not in Latin but in High German. This paragraph offers an interesting use of parallels that accumulate or build on each other. Some are opposites or paradoxical. There is both repetition and ascending meaning, and it reminds me of a ladder.

This following piece combines both the accumulating parallel syntactical construction and negation to powerful effect. This is from: Jalal al-din Rumi The Divan:

What is to be done, O Moslems? For I do not recognize myself. I am neither Christian, nor Jew, nor Parsi, nor Moslem. I am not of the East, nor of the West, nor of the land, nor of the sea; I am not of Nature’s workshop, nor of the circling heavens. I am not of earth, nor of water, nor of air, nor of fire; I am not of the Heavenly City, nor of the dust, nor of existence, nor of entity. I am not of this world, nor of the next, nor of the Paradise, nor of Hell; I am not of Adam, nor of Eve, nor of Eden, nor Eden’s angels. My places is the Placeless, my trace is the Traceless; Tis neither body nor soul, for I belong to the soul of the Beloved. I have put duality away, I have seen that the two worlds are one.
He has thoroughly cancelled the dualism, and in doing so dissolved boundaries of what others have clearly defined. After this, what is left? Silence. Rumi said, "silence is the language of god/ all else is poor translation." 

The following poem seems to capture the fact that language or words cannot adequately communicate experience:

You Words
by Ingeborg Bachmann

You words, arise, follow me!,
and though already we have gone farther,
gone too far, once more it goes
farther, to no end it goes.

It doesn't brighten.

The word
will only drag
other words behind it,
the sentence a sentence. 

So the world wishes,
to press its own cause,
to already be spoken.
Do not speak it.   

Words follow me,
so nothing will be final
--not this passion for words,
nor a saying and its contradiction! 

Let there be for now
no feeling expressed,
let the heart's muscle
exercise in another way. 

Let be, I say, let be.   

Into the highest ear
whisper, I say, nothing,
don't collapse into death,
let be, and follow me, not mild
nor bitter,
nor comforting,
without consolation
without significance,
and thus without symbols-- 

Most of all not this: the image
cobwebbed with dust, the empty rubble
of syllables, dying words.
Not a syllable,
you words!

Poetry is familiar with the language of mystics. There is an acceptance of things that can't be explained. John Keats sought this quality in poetry. He writes, "Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason...." There is a value achieved when we accept ambiguity, and that we cannot overcome it, name it, or explain it.

After exploring language from the perspective of theologians and mystics, I come back to literature with a greater appreciation of poets' skills. I also have developed a greater tolerance for -- actually even a taste for -- the ambiguities. Clarice Lispector (a prose writer) uses this language 
for her narrator in her novel,The Hour of the Star.
I can remember a time when I used to pray in order to kindle my spirit: movement is spirit. Prayer was a means of confronting myself in silence away from the gaze of others. As I prayed I emptied my soul -- and this emptiness is everything that I can ever hope to possess. Apart from this, there is nothing. But emptiness, too, has its value and somehow resembles abundance. One way of obtaining is not to search, one way of possessing is not to ask; simply to believe that my inner silence is the solution to my -- to my mystery.
I don't know exactly why, but this method of paradox, negation, and parallelism seems to get closer to what feels like the truth.

Work Cited

Bachmann, Ingeborg. Songs in Flight: The Collected Poems of Ingeborg Bachman. Translated and introduced by Peter Filkins. Foreword by Charles Simic. Marsilio Publishers, New York. 1994.

Buber, Martin. Ecstatic Confessions, edited by Paul Mendes-Flohr, translated by Esther Cameron (San Franciso: Harper & Row, 1985), I.

Cloud of Unknowing. Internet Sacred Text Archive. 2014. Retrieved 15 January 2014. Web. http://www.sacred-texts.com/index.htm

Lispector, Clarice. The Hour of the Star. Translated by Giovanni Pontiero. New Directions. 1977. 1986. Print.

Soelle, Dorothee. The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance. Translated by Barbara and Martin Rumscheidt. Augsburg Fortress Press. Minneapolis. 2001.

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