Saturday, March 21, 2015

THE MOSES DILEMMA

GROWING OLD IS BEING LIKE MOSES

You’ve crossed to the other
side of despair, drunk the last drops
of stale, bitter water;
you’ve parted the Red Sea.

Now you stand on top of a mountain.
God points, casually
leaning on the air: “Those
vineyards and olive orchards,

that sun-dazzled river —
that’s the Promised Land.
Look long and deep because
you are not going there.”

A classic Kafka scenario:
God who wastes no words.
Who is the kiss and the knife.
Whose other name is Life.

~ Oriana © 2015


**

His destiny was not a triumphal entry, but an exile’s death in Moab, his body buried in an unmarked grave (let’s put aside the issue of whether Moses actually ever lived).

Kafka says about Moses:

He is on the track of Canaan all his life; it’s incredible that he should see the land only when on the verge of death. The dying vision of it can only be intended to illustrate how incomplete a moment is human life, incomplete because a life like this could last forever and still be nothing but a moment. Moses fails to enter Canaan not because his life is too short but because it is human life. ~ Franz Kafka, quoted by Harold Bloom in “Ruin the Sacred Truths.”


Who is the kiss and the knife.
 Whose other name is Life
 
~ that we must give thanks to and adore, for we shall have no other gods.




It happens more often than it is politically correct to admit: for many, and perhaps for most, their great dream does not come true.
 

Those who love to look at the bright side could say, “From this we learn the lesson that it’s not about arriving, it’s about the journey.” I wonder if Moses would have been consoled by that New Age motto — which I admit IS consoling, but perhaps only to those who have learned to “savor the moment.”

In any case, Yahweh isn’t interested in consoling Moses or anyone, and doesn’t say any such thing. In his eyes all those born in Egypt are impure and thus unfit for the new life in the Promised Land. Individual merit doesn’t matter. In the Ancient Near East, religion was collective and based on observance, not on being a good person.
(A shameless digression — yes, so soon — was the Promised Land more affluent and beautiful than Egypt, the most impressive place in the Near East? I have my doubts.)


(An even more shameless digression: Is Christianity about being a good person? I invite the reader to google this; it can be quite eye-opening.)

In any case, Moses was hardly a good person (for the moment, let’s suspend judgment as to whether Moses actually existed or was strictly mythical, though here is a fascinating article on this matter: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/nov/30/moses-man-versus-myth-ridley-scott).

But let us take the myth on face value. Even if he was a nasty, genocidal old man who came up with religious excuses for his dictatorial powers and his cruelty, his final fate can still strike a chord with us. Imagine: all your adult life you worked hard toward a goal. No, for Moses it was not about the journey. That’s not why he put up with the grumblings of the Hebrews rather than giving them the finger and taking off by himself and the chosen few in a spiffy chariot. If he’d done it, I don’t think he’d head for Canaan; he’d probably once more try his luck in Egypt, where the action was.

Moses had a vision even more glowing than the Burning Bush: he planned to rule Canaan as a religious prophet. Theocracy does not thrive under nomadic conditions; it needs real estate.

But as soon as he climbed Mt. Pisgah, certainly an effort for someone his age, as he stood there panting, he received the bad news. A glimpse of the land was all he was to get. He would not be permitted to enter. Raised as an Egyptian prince? Sorry, that’s not kosher. Like all the older grumblers he dragged along, not worthy of the Promised Land.

All the waiting, all the ordeals, all the wandering for decades? All the dedication, all the sacrifices?

That’s just too bad. 

And those allowed to enter not half as deserving as he? Just because they were not born in Egypt?

Life is not fair. Get over it.


Mount Pisgah (also called “Nebo”)  is somewhere there.

*

And Moses, stiff-lipped through so many ordeals, couldn’t bear it anymore. He fell to the ground, shaking with violent sobs.

God quickly walked away, not even mentioning to Moses that this was another opportunity to admire the divine backside. God wasn’t about to console anyone, even if he knew how.

When Moses at last lifted his head off the ground, it was sunset. It was gold, then red, but something was missing. Moses suddenly remembered the sunsets on the Nile, the immense river turning to gold, then fire. In his mind he saw again the beauty of it, the beauty he squandered and abandoned. He would never again sit in a royal canoe in the middle of this liquid fire, hushed with wonder, the boat swaying like a caress. How could he have thought that paradise was somewhere else? The “Promised Land,” how ludicrous! Now he saw his error, the mother of all errors. 


 
*

The “Mt. Pisgah moment” resonates with me at the deepest level. Once I too was on my way to the Promised Land. I too saw myself barred from it. And I thought about Moses, how shattering it must have felt.

More shattering for him than it could possibly be for me. And there was some consolation in that — and, later, in seeing how common the crisis is, how human, how nearly universal. The final victory is laughter: “If at first you don’t succeed, then skydiving definitely isn’t for you.” But it wasn’t funny back then. “Comedy is tragedy plus time.”

I was still at midlife — I could even say “in my prime,” though I saw that only after I closed the door on depression. I managed to invent a “posthumous” life for myself (“posthumous” refers to the death of ambition in the sense of trying to get recognition). Moses, though, was too old to start another career. Besides, he couldn't really switch from being a prophet to taking up pottery “just for the fun of it.” Though he knew Aron was kind to suggest a second career in drought-resistant gardening, and Miriam meant well when she said tambourine lessons would cheer him up, that was useless advice. After a lifetime dedicated to achieving a great goal, nothing could cheer him up.

Today we could easily diagnose the problem: Moses did not “live in the now.” He lived for the future. He lived dreaming of reaching Canaan, and settling there, presumably as the head of state and high priest in one. He fantasized of building a palace surrounded by wonderful lush gardens. Everything he did was a stepping stone toward that future.

Now there would be no future. Nothing would be a stepping stone to anything else.

And the former “stepping stones”? They were just hot, barren rocks eroding in the ruthless sun and wind.

Moses didn’t understand the joy of being posthumous. He didn’t realize that being posthumous was the greatest gift life could offer: the years when there’s nothing to achieve, nothing to prove, and no hurry since you’re not going anywhere. That’s why older people are happier than the young. The young have great expectations leading mostly to great disappointments. People who manage to live long enough to lose the future are finally capable of living in the now.

They wait for nothing. Expect nothing. They think small and do less (a guaranteed way to success, but that’s a different post). They gaze at the world as if for the first time, amazed by the beauty of the most ordinary things. The gleam of water, the way the moon seems to walk with us — things we found beautiful in childhood, but later forgot to pay attention to. That speckled pebble, that bird-like cloud — that is paradise, that is eternity.

And their failed ambitions? They are not important any more. They may not have accomplished what they set out to accomplish, but they did do accomplish something. Others will finish the task. After all, we are a part of a larger story.


*

“To put our faith in tangible goals would seem to be, at best, unwise. We do not strive to be firemen, we do not strive to be bankers, nor policemen, nor doctors. WE STRIVE TO BE OURSELVES.” ~ Hunter Thompson

It is this loyalty to ourselves that can guide us in what life remains.

Another secret of joyful older age is to ditch any kind of THINK BIG philosophy. As I’ve already mentioned, the secret of success is to think small. Instead of great ambition, cultivate micro-ambitions.

Micro-ambitions suit me well: the smaller I think, the more I actually accomplish. Imagine a self-help book by Oriana, called Think Small. I’m not kidding — if I felt some need of “last words,” of making a contribution that could possibly touch thousands, I’d write a self-help book about the most important thing I learned in life, which is to think small and take baby steps.

(A totally shameless digression: my newest plant, a Calandrinia spectabilis just put into the ground, has just come into bloom: it now has two beautiful poppy-like purple flowers. More will be coming.)



 
*

It’s been at least ten years since I wrote the Moses poem and meditated on how devastated he must have felt. But I see now that I underestimated his resilience and the human ability to recover from almost anything.

Yes, I can still imagine Moses casting himself on the ground and crying — howling — in the pain of defeat. The disappointment, the humiliation.

It’s true that he may have felt unable to re-invent himself. It felt like the future got stolen from him. There is no denying the initial despair.

But then, sunset or no sunset, a thought like a small cloud rose in Moses’s mind: “At least I got them this far.”

And Moses laughed.



 
THE MANY MOUNT PISGAHS WE CLIMB
 
Michael:

For several years I've thought about writing a book titled Hymns Foreplay--this to mock and enjoy the naivete of the hymn writers (So heavenly minded as to be of no earthly good), and the evolution of meaning in language (e.g. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel; Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing; Fill Me Now...), and to provide some raucous hilarity in the bedroom. (Let's leave aside the obvious fact that this is the project of a demented, juvenile mind). As an atheist and secular humanist, I have (had) little respect for Christianity (in recent years) or anything connected to it and I looked forward to the work. Two weeks ago I started reviewing hymns and found myself, surprisingly, transported to a time when my conscience was tender and my religious sensibilities eager and willing. I felt again a soft touch, the brush of angel's wings, and heard divine whispers--and I had to stop. There will be no Hymns Foreplay. I cannot mock that which used to hold so much meaning.

It was in this context I cringed from time-to-time at your irreverent but funny reductions of the Moses story (and necessary and just). Still, I cringed. True story or not, in it is writ the desires of the human heart.

The OT and NT are full of mountaintop stories and to me, from a meta-perspective, they are touching: the bumbling, Magoo-like human climbing as high as possible to contact the god who is so high, yet, it is hoped, not actually so far away. And occasionally, the god deigns to lower himself and in some small way--with a view of his backside, a booming voice, or a whisper in the wind--communicates with those importunate and pathetic humans. The quest and desire are real and, for most of us, the climb continues incognito.  

You have prosed (It's a bit ugly to verb that noun, isn't it?) the record well. As a child, I took the story on differently. Moses loved his people (even once offering to exchange his life for theirs) and his loss wasn't entry into the promised land but not entering with his people. He was 120 years old. Eye sight undimmed, physical fervor undiminished. And humble. The humblest then and since. In the end he got the better deal--resurrection. Emissary to Christ. Buddies with Elijah. Hobnobbing with god. Or so the story goes.

Still, it was a Pisgah moment. I think the mantra about journeys and destinations is wrong. There are no destinations. There is only journey. I think of the many promised lands I've tried to enter, some of them successfully. Once arrived I found myself thinking, Now what?

I could only journey on.

My greatest Pisgah was the climb and the discovery there is no god and stumbled down that mountain with no sense that paradise lay in any direction. What others hear as voice I know is only wind. Rocks tumbling. Psychic machinations. There is no promised land.

(I've been wondering what the psychic impact will be when we discover life on another planet. How will our paradisaical aspirations change? What new Pisgahs will we climb?)

Are we left with only laughter? That's as good an answer as any. Why not? I want to laugh off my seriousness. I've done what I've done. I am where I am. There's not much else for it. I'm all for laughing with Moses. At least I got myself this far. And maybe I should thank the Universe for Pisgahs. Nothing like a long hike and empty mountaintop to set the mind straight.  

 
NOTHING LIKE AN EMPTY MOUNTAIN TOP


Oriana:

Thank you, Michael, for this deep and thoughtful response.

The discovery that there is no god wasn’t quite a Pisgah for me — it was a liberation from a torturous death march. But there is a way in which the metaphor does hold: I had to somehow get on the heights of broader knowledge — in my case, learning about other mythologies — to gain an overview of this one mythology that was poisoning my life. How interesting that the serpent was a positive symbol in other mythologies — that of wisdom, healing, and immortality (because it shed its old skin and seemed rejuvenated; have you ever found a shed snake skin while hiking? It’s so interesting. But I digress.)

Since I left the church at 14, not much supportive and comforting text has registered on me. I know that such text could be found, but for me it was overwhelmed by the toxic threats. I couldn’t love a god whose power rested on the kingdom of hell. And even Jesus was supposed to return as a JUDGE, in spite of his own preaching about not judging.

So leaving the church was liberation. The monstrous judge did not exist. And Jesus is never, never, never coming back. He is not going to throw me and my parents and other loved ones into hell. And I don’t have to crawl on my knees (a very catholic practice) and beg to be spared. RELIEF!

But thinking about the Mt. Pisgah moments in the metaphoric sense, I’ve certainly had those. Isn’t disappointment a rich and fascinating psychological experience, once we are over the shock and pain? As long as we don’t commit suicide, we generally manage to move on.

America was the new Promised Land. In Polish literature there is a novel called The Promised Land — about going to America, the myth, the hope. It was never “the United States” — it was America the All-Accepting Mother Goddess waiting for the huddled masses etc.

I wasn’t the first one to discover that the relationship between the United States and America is a difficult one.

But I came to love California and that ultimately helped save me from living in bitterness and regret.

Marriage can be a climb up another Mt. Pisgah, but it’s possible to find a “peaceful solution” so that respect and gratitude prevail. (Or even a “two-state solution,” LOL.) Likewise with romance and heartbreak. Talk about really strenuous trails . . .

The hard one, the one that almost killed me, was of course poetry. That was the steepest climb of all, and part of it was sheer euphoria, the drunkenness of high altitudes. Alas, a vision of fame and a different life it was supposed to bring managed to poison everything. It took years and a whole succession of insights before I was finally at peace and even happily harvesting. There can be a delight in failure — talk about joyful surprises!

And yes, laughter helps. “Laughing with Moses” — a new hymn could be written with that refrain. 

And sitting on empty mountain tops — quite mind-clearing, yes.

I also thank you for quoting “So heavenly minded as to be of no earthly good” — that is a gem.

I am of course aware that there is also the tradition of Catholic mysticism where the soul is the Beloved and not a worthless sinner. I discovered it later, but it was too late — too much religious mumbo-jumbo in the way. And “Beloved” was for the elite, not for the dumb sheep that ordinary church goers allegedly were. In any case, the great adventure is loving a real person, with all their flaws and neuroses and contradictions, and not an imaginary ideal. 


**

PS. Here is a wonderful video. I know you don’t need convincing that hell doesn’t except (except here on earth, as does heaven). It’s the part about god enhancing our humanity rather than rescuing us from it, god as something unfolding in us, that I find quite congenial. Not that we need the god label, but for those who have positive memories rather than god-the-monster, I think that might be a way to eat your god and have him/it too (I know . . . just couldn’t resist it . . . too many communion wafers).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SF6I5VSZVqc


and here is another treat: Johnny Cash singing "You're so heavenly minded you're no earthly good"

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OyStrEnDIbw

Sunday, March 1, 2015

RILKE: A BREATH AROUND NOTHING

A god can do it. But tell me, how
can a man follow through the narrow lyre?
His mind is divided. At the crossing of two
heartways stands no temple for Apollo.

Song is not desire, not wooing
any favor that can still be attained;
song is existence. Easy for the god.
But when do we exist? When does he pour

the earth and the stars into us? Young man,
it’s not about love, when your voice
forces open your mouth — learn to forget

your sudden outburst. That will run out.
True singing is a different breath. A breath
around nothing. A breeze in the god. A wind.

~ Rilke, Sonnet to Orpheus 3, 1

“Gesang ist Dasein.” There is no capturing the music of this assonance and consonance, those wonderful vowels that are lost in “existence,” nor at their best in “being.” But even if the music is lost, the poetry that remains (by one definition, poetry is what remains after translation) is sufficient to stun us into silence.

The first difficulty is that we are rarely completely confident about anything. Our mind is divided into fifty shades of “yes, but.” And poetry (usually identified with singing) works best when we make simple declarative statements: “What will remain of us is love” (Larkin, “The Arundel Tomb”). We have to take out all species of “almost,” “perhaps,” or “sometimes.” Prose is more permissive and subtle that way, closer to reality. But poetry, when it works, has more emotional power.

Second, Rilke dismisses a cherished belief about poetry: that it comes from being in love. That inspiration and that material will run out. And if real singing is a breath around nothing, then it’s hard for the immortal young to grasp that core meaning. A breath around nothing is a breath around the nothing to come after someone else closes our eyelids. We sing about and against our personal knowledge of mortality.

(It could be argued that a poet like Donne, or Dickinson on those days when she at least tried to believe that “this world is not conclusion,” could also produce real singing in the expectation of living forever, disembodied at first, but eventually rising in flesh — apparently true paradise depends on having a body after all. But Rilke, who knew that all religions are human inventions, at best tried to imagine a non-Christian kind of afterlife, where the dead have their special tasks.)

There is Donne, but Donne is small next to Shakespeare, who is not a religious poet. And that is almost an omen of secularism: real singing will be around nothing, i.e. poetry will embrace this mortal life. In any case, the process of creating a poem is not between the poet and god, but between the poet and the language. I suspect it was that way even for religious poets: they would rather go into erotic mysticism than stick to dogma and spoil the melody and/or image.

Besides, like all writing, poetry requires dramatic tension. No surprise for the poet, no surprise for the reader. If all the answers have already been provided by religion or an ideology (Adrienne Rich’s poetry deteriorated when she became a vociferous feminist), the poem is too predictable. A poet needs to remain in the “cloud of unknowing.”

Photo: Trey Ratcliff

This is not to say that poetry is without its gods. Beauty and art among be among the gods of poetry, but so is melancholy — a kind of beautiful sorrow, a twilight. Now and then, a true night of despair. After all, without darkness, there would be little need for poetry. In modernity, unadorned observation of life has become the most common mode, without necessarily — or at any rate not obviously — seeking to provide an uplift. But beauty itself is always a triumph of the human sprit.

And poets must hurry into the narrow lyre because tomorrow may be too late. “Sing now while you have a voice.”

Still, poetry has to delight in order to be poetry. “It must give pleasure,” as Wallace Stevens said. For me this is the first commandment of poetry. And even in translation, I think this particular sonnet to Orpheus does give that deep pleasure by which we know art. The poem stuns us with its depth, its originality, its courage (it does take courage to say that “true singing is a breath around nothing”), its excellence, and its beauty.

Rilke wrote the Sonnets to Orpheus rapidly, in the white heat of inspiration. Poems that come in this manner are often the best. But even if it took only minutes to write down the first draft, we must remember that it also took a lifetime of incredible dedication. To Rilke, nothing came ahead of poetry. Nothing was more important, not even his daughter’s wedding (I knew a woman who refused to read Rilke because she couldn't forgive him for that — he said he didn’t want to lose the creative momentum).

The Sonnets, I feel, became Rilke’s last will and testament. We are all the rich heirs. 


**
In summary: This particular sonnet is about poetry. And it’s quite a feat, since most poems about poetry aren’t that engaging, not even to poets. Rilke asks: how can we write poems? How is that possible at all? “A god can do it” — but a human being, that mess of contradictions? To a god, everything is a simple yes or no, but our mind is divided: we see how almost any statement is both true and false.

And there is a second major point. True poetry, Rilke says, does not stem from falling in love; it comes from confronting our mortality and still being awed by the earth and the stars. It’s when we see the magnificence that of the world that we truly exist and can celebrate the strange, improbable glory of being alive, of being able to feel joy though we hold the knowledge of mortality like an apple in our mouth. To Rilke, just to exist is transcendent.

Chateau de Muzot, where Rilke completed the Duino Elegies and wrote the Sonnets to Orpheus.

Hyacinth:

My favorite sonnet  of Rilke . . . I never get tired of hearing or reading or discussing it . . . thank you.

Oriana:

It’s hard for me to pick a favorite, with such wealth. The second one, “A girl almost,” was the first sonnet I fell in love with. And of course I love the unicorn sonnet, and the one about mirrors, with Narcissus in the last line.

Speaking of lines, sometimes it’s not the whole poem but a line or two: Be ahead of all parting; if drinking’s bitter, turn into wine; money lives in a pampering bank; does it ever uncurl (a beggar’s hand); does it really exist, time the destroyer — the list goes on. The more I re-read the Sonnets, the more certain lines become part of my psyche.

Charles:

It’s so true that beauty is the god of the art world.

Oriana:

Or it used to be. I hope, naively perhaps, that it will be restored, just as architecture is no longer an imitation of factories.

Michael:


I admit to hiding behind "yes, but" as an excuse for my limited intellect or heart intelligence. I've never been able to make much of Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus and a well-placed Yes, but has come in quite handy from time to time — it allows for masking my not having a clue. Talk about never being sure. That's it. Most often I don't have a clue what he's talking about and that's the kind of poetry that leaves me deflated and self-flagellating.

And then enters a commentator, like yourself, unraveling the mystery. And I'm grateful but mostly awed and left scratching my head. I scrolled to the top a number of times to read the bit again. Is that what he meant? Really? How did she dig that out of that?

Perhaps poetry has more than a time and a place. Maybe it picks its people as well.

For me it truly is a breath around nothing — meaning the dusty recesses of my mind.

Oriana:

Michael, relax and trust yourself. The meaning of a poem is not what the poet put in it like a thing that never alters (a kind of altar??) A poem, once out in the world, belongs to the reader. Even if the poet comments on a particular poem, explaining the intended meaning, that commentary can be discarded and your own response given priority.

Just think of a myriad ways a bible verse can be interpreted. A historian will see it differently than a psychologist, a mother who’s lost a child differently than a young man who sees himself as one of the “masters of the universe.” The reader needs to find a personal interpretation, or else the text is dead to him or her, and often repugnant since the morality of an ancient deity is inferior to our modern ethical sensibility. 

A work of literature belongs to the culture — and culture changes: we read Homer differently than Plato did. Human nature may stay relatively the same, but our values differ quite significantly from the value of antiquity. Each reader has a different perspective: life experience is especially important here. “Trust the poem, not the poet.”

This particular sonnet is about poetry. And it’s quite a feat, since most poems about poetry aren’t that engaging, not even to poets. Rilke asks: how can we write poems? How is that possible at all? “A god can do it” — but a human being, that mess of contradictions? To a god, everything is a simple yes or no, but our mind is divided: we see how almost any statement is both true and false.

And there is a second major point. True poetry, Rilke says, does not stem from falling in love; it comes from confronting our mortality and still being awed by the earth and the stars. It’s when we see the magnificence that of the world that we truly exist and can celebrate the strange, improbable glory of being alive, of being able to feel joy though we hold the knowledge of mortality like an apple in our mouth. To Rilke, just to exist is transcendent.

(Looking at the last two paragraphs here made me think that my “explication” wasn’t clear enough. I need a kind of “in summary” — so I'm going to add these paragraphs to the main body of the post.)

The next post will be about Moses on Mt. Pisgah, and you’ll feel more at home. I don’t mean that you’ll enjoy thinking of those mountain top altars where bulls and rams were sacrificed, but I think you’ll bask in the relative clarity of the psychological meaning.