Sunday, July 22, 2012

RILKE: THE UNICORN SONNET












This morning I was reading Rilke on how it’s not necessary for god to exist, since prayer creates him. And if such prayer-created deity doesn’t persist, that’s all the better, Rilke asserts: we’ll just pray again and again. I think it’s possible to understand this, and still get some benefit from the ritual of prayer.

Rilke’s famous unicorn sonnet shows how “belief can create,” at least at the subjective level:

O dieses ist das Tier das es nicht gibt

This is the animal that doesn’t exist. 
But they didn’t know it and dared nonetheless
to love its transformations, its bearing, its gait 
so much that in the tranquil gaze of light, it lived. 

Really it never was. Out of their love they made it, 
this pure creature. They always saved a space. 
And in that place, empty and set aside, 
it lightly raised its head and scarcely

needed to be. They fed it no corn, 
only the possibility that it might exist –
which gave the beast such strength, it bore 

a horn upon his forehead. Just one horn. 
It came to a virgin, all white, 
and was in the silver mirror and in her.

Sonnets to Orpheus II, 4

There appears to be some limit to the power of strictly mental existence. After the Middle Ages, lack of credible evidence eventually eroded the legend of the unicorn. (Or was it that there was no real emotional need for the unicorn to exist?) But we can still enjoy the unicorn as art. And the unicorn is still the heraldic animal of Scotland — perhaps presaging the doom of Scottish independence for now. Imagine having as your emblem an animal that doesn’t exist — though of course it DOES exist as a concept and as poetry. Platonists would argue that a symbol is more important than pedestrian reality.

But if I may be pardoned for being Aristotelian: I wonder how many of our current beliefs will ultimately go the way of the unicorn.


PRACTICE CREATES BELIEF

But, as Rilke says, it’s not necessary to believe in god in order to pray to him. In fact it’s the reverse: prayer creates god, at least in the psychological sense. The more often you pray (go to mass, make a pilgrimage, etc), the more real god will appear. Practice creates belief. Being exposed to religious art and sacred music deepens that effect.

 I’ve noted this effect also with New Age practices. People start going to psychics and Tarot readings “just for fun,” but within a year or so they may find themselves taking classes, joining a chanting group, and so forth. Contrary to the idea that belief comes first and action later, quite often action precedes belief. 


Hence the New Age doctrine of reversal: put the desired outcome  first. Be happy, and the beloved comes. Love yourself, and the excess weight will melt with no effort. Start writing, and the inspiration will come. There are studies that confirm this. 


START WORKING, AND THE INSPIRATION WILL COME

Artists still talk about the Muse – not always in the sense of the beloved who inspires creative work, but in the ancient sense of “Sing, heavenly goddess, the wrath of Achilles.” Yes, that beautiful divine being in a pleated tunic, holding a lyre.

I could create the Muse in my mind, give her a name, say prayers, even create a little altar with seashells, a geode, candles, crystals – there are writers who do! But if a writer actually sacrificed a lamb to the muse, we’d see this as insane. Taking the subjective world literally to some degree is, well, a socially accepted sort of schizophrenia . . . But exceeding that degree becomes clinical schizophrenia.

It's a very tricky terrain, and I can't exempt myself from "doing what comes naturally," i.e. harboring cognitive illusions. It's just how we evolved, and it's only when that tendency is pushed to extremes that we get pathology (typically paranoid schizophrenia) in place of poetry.

(By the way, in ancient Greek the first word of the Iliad is not sing, but rage.)
 
**

THE TELEOLOGICAL FALLACY

God in his wisdom made the fly,
And forgot to tell us why.
                 ~ Ogden Nash

Due to my recent computer NDE, I found myself with more time to read (no curse without a blessing, no blessing without a curse), and read Jesse Bering’s superb The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life. I read the chapters on destiny and “signs, signs everywhere” not once, but three times.

Bering writes:

Each of us, everyone one of the billions of individuals on this planet, feels as if we’re here to satisfy our own unique purpose, one crafted especially for us by intentional design. (p. 61)

This is an example of teleological (purpose-oriented) thinking (telos = end, goal). Young children, when asked a question such as “Why do mountains exist?” are likely to reply in terms of purpose: “So that animals have a higher place to climb.” Older children may shrug and say, “They just are.” Those who’ve had some science education can give a geological answer: volcanoes, and up-thrust mountains that result from the collision of tectonic plates.

Ah, those pesky geologists! Ruskin complained that he hears the clinking of a geologist’s hammer at the end of each biblical verse. After all, it’s not just biologists who asserted that everything evolved over an unimaginable expanse of time. Still, it’s Darwin who is credited with endowing us with the evolutionary perspective that omits “purpose” or “design.” Bering quotes from Darwin’s letter to the botanist Asa Gray:

I see a bird which I want for food, take my gun and kill it, I do this designedly. An innocent man stands under a tree and is killed by a flash of lightning. Do you believe that God designedly killed this man? Many or most persons do believe this; I can’t and don’t. If you believe so, do you believe that when a swallow snaps up a gnat that God designed that that particular swallow should snap up that particular gnat at that particular instant? I believe that the man and the gnat are in the same predicament. If the death of neither man nor gnat are designed, I see no reason to believe that their first birth or production should be necessarily designed. (p. 63)

Bering laments that parents and teachers unwittingly promote the idea of destiny, prophesying that Jimmy is going to be a pianist and Adele is already on her way to become a champion ice-skater. Few children live up to those glorious prophecies. They settle for an “ordinary” life. This is usually no tragedy, but in some cases this “failure” leads to a life-long resentment. I’ll say more on this topic in a future blog, “What gardens were you born for?”

My interest in the topic hints that it’s taken me quite a while – years and years of chronic depression – to overcome this kind of resentment. But my chief cognitive sin, I think, has been “navigating by omens.” It comes naturally to a poet trained to read “symbolic meaning” in poems that strikes the average reader as merely obscure. But no special education is required – we are wired to see pattern and meaning. Anything we see, anything that happens, can be interpreted as a sign, communicating to us who we are in our essence and what we are supposed to do. Consider this poem of mine:
  
AT THE WIND HARP
                       
   There are only miracles.
                                    ~ Franz Kafka

At the Marina, listening to the wind harp,
its rainbow of harmonics,
I felt a light touch
above my left wrist –

a little girl, maybe eight-years-old –
Down Syndrome –
pale skin, pale aqua eyes –
like a pretty ghost child.

She was just beginning to smile,
her finger pointing: “You.”
Then she ran off,
vanished like wind into wind.

*

In gilded medieval light, I stood
on a sand dune overlooking
the city of Prague –
zlata Praha,”golden Prague” –

its stony-ribbed cathedral,
royal castle of a thousand windows,
and the narrow crooked hope
in the crooked street below,

The Alchemists’ Lane –
And the legend of the Golem:
on the giant’s clay forehead
the word Emet, meaning Truth.

When the Golem grew dangerous,
Rabbi Liwa erased the first letter,
leaving Met, meaning Death.
And the Golem fell back to dust.

*

I started across the sand, but it bled
into flat suburban streets, the dream
fled. I lay thinking, will I ever
reach the golden city of Prague?

I thought of Kafka and the cold
cathedral, its moan of echoes,
prayers denied, denied, denied.
I thought of classes never taught,

of the ghost poems I wrote:
would they vanish like night
into night? Then your image
returned – you returned,

child at the wind harp,
and with a touch as light as
one letter, changed the word
from death to truth. 

~ Oriana © 2012

**

Readers tend to like this poem, even if they don’t entirely “get it.” They like it because, as one person recently said, it gives a special (if unclear) meaning to a gesture made by a child. The mystical logic of the poem “animates the universe” that otherwise seems only “dead matter.”

Arguably it’s a flaw that the poem could use a bit of autobiographical explanation. The incident at the wind harp happened when I felt confused and defeated about my calling. If I was “meant” to be a poet, if this was what I was “born for,” the Great Dream of my life – shouldn’t there be, after so many years, a real audience, beyond a handful of friends? I was thrashing after any confirmation that I ought to continue on my frustrating path, to the point of wanting to believe that being touched by this little girl with Down’s syndrome singled me out for a difficult destiny. After all, a folk tradition has it that “holy fools” can see a deeper truth. And it all took place near a wind harp – harp and poetry, need I say more?


I wouldn't dream of speaking seriously in such terms, implying that everything has a secret meaning and “there are no accidents.” In conversation I would never assert that the child at the wind harp confirmed what my “destiny” was – a single, special destiny being as much a myth as the one and only “soulmate.” We make up our “destiny” as we go along. Some believe in a “divine plan” designed especially for them, but there is no evidence for it, no matter how many people testify before a TV camera, “I know I was saved for a purpose.” What about the three hundred others who went down with the plane, while one lucky would-be passenger had a flat tire on the way to the airport, and thus missed the departure? What was the divine plan for those who didn’t survive? But it would depress us to ponder that chance plays a huge role, so we reject this frightening hypothesis. During a storm at sea, D.H. Lawrence soothed his wife by saying, “Of course the ship won’t sink; after all, I am on it.” He wasn’t joking. He had a destiny to fulfill.

THE COGNITIVE ILLUSION THAT EVERYTHING HAS A MEANING

Jesse Bering, a cognitive psychologist, makes a compelling case that it’s all cognitive illusion. But in poetry one can get away with all kinds of mysticism. A poet is pretty much compelled to be a mystic, at least for the duration of a poem, or s/he risks being called “pedestrian.” Ideally, there should be at least two layers of meaning in a poem, and three or four layers make it all the more wonderful. Signs, signs everywhere. As I say in a different poem, “Hel Peninsula,” already as a child I discovered layers of meaning:

      . . . Everything

is a language, has a secret message –
specks of insects glimmering in amber,
the bronze mermaid slippery as tears.

**

In retrospect, I see another, more plausible meaning of the “child at the wind harp.” Depressives tend to feel unloved and unlovable. Receiving even a slight token of affection from a child or an animal contradicts this assumption, and briefly lifts the heart. The poem need not be read in terms of the Death of the Great Dream, and its partial restoration when attention shifts to “truth,” the sacred task of a writer – a masked truth, hidden in symbolic images. Another “truth” contained in this poem is the power of affection to reverse the death
of the heart. 

SYNCHRONICITY? 
                                                                                               
The human mind is nimble enough to read some kind of message or meaning in practically everything that comes to its attention. Fortunately, not everything comes to our attention, or we’d be overwhelmed. And that’s another factor we need to ponder in this strange game that the universe seems to play with us: SELECTIVE ATTENTION.

While composing the blog, having just copied the Wind Harp poem, I went to the mailbox to pick up my mail, these days sadly dwindled to bills and advertising. This time it was a travel supplies catalog, and on its cover, a lovely view of Prague in a gilded late-afternoon light. Jungians would love this. The human brain is wired to seek pattern and meaning: randomness can never satisfy it.

After all, it’s to this pattern seeking that we owe the arts and sciences – the entire human culture, in fact. Destiny and omens are cognitive illusions, and even “miracles” have a natural explanation, though we may not see it, just as we don’t perceive how a magician works his magic. Still, our highly developed ability to detect and create patterns has mostly served us well. As Howard Nemerov concludes in “The Blue Swallows”
 
O swallows, swallows, poems are not
the point. Finding again the world,
that is the point, where loveliness
adorns intelligible things
because the mind’s eye lit the sun.












Sunset, Hollywood hills. Photo: C. Sherman

##


Hyacinth:

Enjoyed it thoroughly. Your unicorn poem belongs on this blog.

Oriana:

Just for you, sweet Hyacinth:

UNICORN IN CAPTIVITY
15th century French tapestry

Smooth as a leap and of the moonlight
even in plain day, it grazed so deep
in the woods of the inner eye,
it evaded mere seeing –

They wove it into a garden;
it would come to a virgin –
they wove the deceit – the delicate,
bell-like drops of blood –

They enclosed a profaning fence,
fixed a fine chain, a gem-set collar,
a pomegranate tree for a stake; violets
and columbines its embroidered domain.

Then they forgot about it.
Only the girl came to it in the still
morning-amazed world,
to touch it with a tender and imagined hand.

~ Oriana © 2012

**

SIGNS, SIGNS EVERYWHERE

Mary:

Maybe it's not just that our brains are wired to perceive signs. My own feeling: in some sense they really are "out there" as well as "in here." After all, evolution is adaptation.

Oriana:

Jesse Bering is good at explaining the adaptive value of seeing signs in things, and how natural selection worked to heighten this human capacity. Out of everything “out there,” we tend to single out certain things and occurrences as signs and omens because once that was crucial for survival. For instance, we are hard-wired to see "faces" in things -- this was useful for recognizing predators, with their frontal eyes. And even now -- or perhaps especially now -- it’s important that we recognize the emotions and intentions of people we meet.

Can this become borderline irrational? It happens all the time. As Steve commented in another post, after making a decision, a friend of his “watches the universe for signs” and concludes on that basis whether or not the universe favors his decision (note the theory of mind here – this man animates the universe; the universe either likes or doesn’t like his decision, and will communicate its attitude).

Our minds are very good at finding meaning in just about anything. But we should remember that it’s all interpretation. As the old rabbis said, a dream isn’t complete without an interpretation. That holds for just about anything we pay attention to.

(P.S. Alas, we've lost Mary in December 2012. She was a beautiful human being, an activist who tried to make contraceptive rights more widely available to women -- among her other causes.)

JAMES HILLMAN'S VIEW OF DESTINY

Darlene:

What is your view of Hillman “acorn” theory of destiny?

Oriana:

You are referring to The Soul’s Code, in which Hillman proposes a kind of “DNA of the soul.” How I wish Hillman were still alive and could read Bering’s deconstruction of the soul, destiny, omens, and especially of the mind/body duality in general . . . All this Platonism really has to go. It's more than two thousand years out of date.

Still, you know how much I love Hillman’s idea that extraordinary people are extraordinary because they are so dedicated to their calling. And I am grateful to Hillman for trying to dismantle the psychoanalytic idea that parental influences and early childhood experiences make us who we are. Una, a mother of five, often says, “What you do as a parent doesn’t matter that much. They always turn out different than you expected, and each one is different from the day they were born.”

At the same time, we should beware of falling into genetic determinism (I don’t think we need to reach for some imaginary and non-material “DNA of the soul” when the actual DNA encodes so much: intelligence, persistence, ability to delay pleasure, risk-taking versus caution. But even genes don’t have absolute power to determine who we are, how we “turn out.” That would be like claiming “god’s master plan.” Caroline Myss says somewhere that even which tomato you pick at the supermarket has been determined in advance as part of your destiny – “it’s that specific.” That’s absurd. The interactions with the environment are very complex. We shape ourselves as we go along. We invent ourselves – within limits. Contrary to blithe New Age pronouncements, no, we can’t be anything we’d like to be (Hillman would agree with that).

THE SELF-MADE MAN AND THE VICTIM

I also like this perceptive statement by Hillman: “The current American identity as a victim is the flip side of the coin whose head brightly displays the opposite identity: the heroic self-made man, carving out destiny alone and with unflagging will.” But when we take a closer look at the “heroic self-made man,” he (self-sufficiency is a masculine ideal) is never 100% “self-made”; we discover a multitude of people and factors that helped shape the person. Usually the truth resides not at either extreme, but somewhere in between. 

If we are lucky, the dominant talent encoded in our genes will be allowed to develop and find an outlet. But a lot of people are not lucky, and besides, we tend to be gifted in several areas and may not have a single dominant talent that shows already at an early age. It’s more realistic to think in terms of several potential paths in life rather than a single “destiny.” But once we commit to a path, at the beginning it may be helpful to think of it in somewhat absolute terms. Remember, choice is stressful; eliminating choice and focusing on one path makes sense in terms of maximizing accomplishment and happiness (“why quitters win” – they concentrate on one thing).

I’d call this a pragmatic view of destiny. Calling a particular path our “destiny” may help us focus and put enough work into developing the required skills that we achieve excellence, perhaps even become “extraordinary.” I suspect, though, that the concept of destiny will eventually fall into disuse as a leftover from archaic modes of thought. It’s not as bad as believing in karma from past lives, but if you get too literal about your “acorn” (or daimon or genius or guiding image or any other metaphorical-mythical representation of “destiny”), you get simplistic. There are many forces at work and in constant interaction; our knowledge of what shapes us and how and why we consciously try to shape ourselves is likely to remain partial. There are worse, ahem, fates.

THE LADY AND THE UNICORN TAPESTRY

Charles:

I love this image but don't know what the symbolism of the flag is.

Also love the human face on the lion and the background of all the animals.

THE LION AND THE UNICORN

Oriana:

Yes, both the lion and the unicorn are quite endearing. In fact all the animals here are. 

Note the wonderful flourish of the tails.

The banner is the pennant of the French nobleman Jean de Laviste, who at the end of the fifteenth century commissioned the six unicorn tapestries They are now at the Cluny Museum in Paris.

The background of the tapestry is known as the mille-fleurs design.

Charles:

Interesting if an artist made a sacrifice of a lamb to a Muse 2000 years ago she would have been considered a pagan.

Same is true today except it isn't politically correct to smite a lamb for any purpose unless a butcher does it.

Love the story of the Down syndrome child, literally touching and the afterthoughts about it.

Oriana:

Sacrificing either humans or animals to a deity used to be customary, a pious practice. To most of us, blood sacrifice is a repulsive idea. Only Jesus as a human “sin sacrifice” is still the official dogma. At long last at least some more liberal Protestant theologians (e.g. Bishop Shelby Spong) are protesting that we need to drop this archaic and barbarous concept of an innocent being killed for anyone’s sins. The religious right, on the other hand, constantly invokes the “blood of the Lamb.”

Then there is the doctrine of trans-substantiation. As a child I was force-fed the belief that the communion wafer and wine literally became flesh and blood. Talk about organized schizophrenia . . .

It’s interesting that the crucifix wasn’t part of early Christian art. Early Christians preferred to depict paradise. The crucifix became dominant during the Middle Ages (I still can’t understand how humanity survived the Middle Ages).

The girl with Down Syndrome was amazingly lovely and endearing. If I happened to be a mystic, I’d probably see her as an angel. But then the mind is awfully good at creating meaning. When the meaning stays private, it’s usually harmless. But if I took being touched by this “special” little girl as a sign that I am a prophet and should start preaching (some might argue that being a writer is similar), that could be a symptom of a psychotic breakdown. Sometimes the line between normal cognitive function, including seeing meaning in something we see or experience, and psychotic delusions, seems rather faint . . .

THE CHARM OF THE ILLUSION OF DESTINY


Lilith:

Oh no! Can’t you leave me the illusion of destiny just to tinker with. You are so right, and I’ve never seen it written before, that I have been all my adult life an atheist-poet-intellectual-literature professor navigating through written language omen by omen, synchronicity by synchronicity, searching for connections.

As though humans are like ants in a colony, all connected on one wave length, and that wave length just might be poetry. And one day I understood that we, and all of the earth and its creatures, are made from the same star and are thus the same stuff. I had to look that far for connection, which might be the only truth that’s not an illusion, in the Hindu sense of peeling away the illusions so we can reach enlightenment. 

Oriana:

Actually, even the atoms in your right hand most likely come from a different stars than the atoms in your left hand. The reason is that it took the death of many stars to produce the atoms that now constitute our bodies. Every atom inside us was once inside a star! Now of course any of those atoms is in a very different configuration than billions of years ago. Who knows where it's been. 

Of course we are connected in all kinds of ways. We are of the earth, we are the children of the Universe. And there really are patterns out there -- just not necessarily the kind that correspond to our desires. But much is yet to be understood. I’ll leave it at that.

I think Daoism is compatible with no personal deity, no destiny, and no afterlife. "Soul" in the sense of psyche dies when the brain dies. But we remain right here on earth in the memories of others, and through the ripple effect -- "the immortality of influence." I do have a blog on that: the accidentally hilarious interfaith panel on the afterlife. You'll love it. 


ARE LOVERS PRE-DESTINED TO MEET?

Teresa:

An invisible red thread connects those destined to meet, despite the time, the place, and despite the circumstances. The thread can be tightened or tangle, but will never be broken.” ~ Chinese proverb


Oriana:

This is lovely as poetry, but it's based on our tendency to think that because something happened, it HAD TO happen. Funny, it was Milosz, a public Catholic (though full of Gnostic doubt), who taught me this principle of cognitive bias.

No, lovers are not predestined to meet. We could be wonderful "soulmates" with a thousand other people. But lovers always see each other as inevitable -- at least as long as they are in love. "Destiny" is an illusion. There are infinite other plots, perspectives, narratives -- as many as there are people, each with his/her own "contract with life."

It’s not just that lovers aren’t predestined to meet. Nothing is predestined in this probabilistic universe. But the redeeming feature here is that we can learn lessons from whatever happens. Response is everything. Learning and growth are everything. 


THE SEA UNICORN

Scott:

Love the 'sea unicorn', the Narwhal. The poet Louis MacNiece has a great line from one of my favorite poems, 'Thalassa'

'The Narwhal dares us to be free'

Lawrence was a great early proponent of Melville, as was the Catholic poetess Viola Meynell, a friend of his in the 20's post WWI literary circle.

Oriana:

Scott, you are amazing. And you’ve taught me something – I used to think the narwhal was just a “northern whale,” an arctic species – and didn’t know this was indeed the unicorn – the sea unicorn! The “horn” is a greatly elongated left canine. Below is an image of narwhals “tusking.” 



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