Essay / 26 August 2022

‘You know, my harp, I will be entirely without a body / and yet we both will sing with no restrains.’

Author of the Week: Slovenia

Poetry and Transcendence

Slovenian poet Jure Jakob has articulated in a recent interview a thought that seems quite radical and is rarely voiced. He said that the poetic focus he aspires to is closer to the composure of the prayer than to the energy of a rebellion.

Comparing the processes of the prayer to those involved in creating a poem is quite uncommon especially in the current Slovenian poetic landscape. Although there have been some indications in recent years that such poetic approach has not completely disappeared from the radar, the constant anti-government demonstrations during the last couple of years have attracted some members of the literary establishment that sensed the opportunity to regain their former glory by producing and/or reciting poetry that might be characterized as protest or rebellion poetry. This same establishment, sometimes even disguised as the underground, had previously endorsed poetic approaches that arise from the current social, economic, or personal circumstances and reflect on these circumstances in a poetry-like form that can be used to stir up emotions to support activism and rebellion directed against, ironically, the establishment.

I have no desire to go into a thorough, polemical analysis of the Slovenian literary community, and I don’t intend to deliver a critique of protest poetry which I’m only referring to by way of illustration. The above description tries to juxtapose two basic views about the origins of the poetical. Is its source outside the author or does it originate from within? Is the poet a mere commentator, potentially a critic and an activist rebelling against perceived injustices that he sees in the outside world? Is such poetry any different from the epitaphs and hymns commissioned to praise the achievements of past rulers, offering interesting insights into the idiosyncrasies of a certain period, crafty, but mostly with no poetic value?

Or, on the other hand, does the poetic language not reflect upon the experience of human being that is born within the mystery of hypostasis? What is more, does it not transcend this very experience it reflects upon? If so, how exactly does this differ from the experience of prayer and meditation?

In his book Erotism, George Bataille states that “Between one being and another there is a gulf, a discontinuity.” Bataille defines humans as discontinuous beings, living in a state of isolation, ultimately separated from one another. He sees the two facets of life—death and eroticism—as our only means of overcoming our discontinuous existence. For Bataille both offer the key to transcendence, “a possible continuance of being beyond the self.” One of the manifestations of eroticism is poetry, which becomes a way for humans to transcend their discontinuous existence and experience continuity with the universe. Poetry is a force through which human beings can experience a brief moment of continuity, a moment where they are no longer aware of their separateness from each-other and the universe. This moment of creation is paradoxically linked with death—it is in fact a little death—la petite mort. Death is our other hope for a continuous existence, and through experience of poetry we leave the profanity of the here and now and briefly transcend to another realm. Faced with a good poem we die a little. Roland Barthes later suggested this should be a sensation experienced with all good literature, not only poetry.

Bataille says that erotism can be experienced on three levels. The first and most commonly known is the erotism of the body, manifested in the sexual act where to orgasm is to experience the little death. The second form is the erotism of the heart, manifested in romantic or partner love. Both these forms transcend the individual discontinuity to achieve the continuity with another human being. Here it is important to stress the paradoxical nature of erotism which is an inherently violent force. The act of transcending one’s discontinuity always involves violence and yet all discontinuous creatures suffer in loneliness and dread to die before achieving the continuity they lost at birth. Being naked in the presence of another human being, entering their body is an act of violence against individual discontinuity yet we all ultimately desire it. The erotism of the body and the heart can never achieve full continuity because two human beings can never fully renounce their individual discontinuity, at least not before death. So, the third form of erotism is introduced— the sacred erotism that marks the desire of discontinuous beings to transcend the borders of the known and merge with something that is beyond any achievable experience. Sacred erotism denotes the desire to achieve the continuity of the essence and thus immortality. Such transcendence demands greater violence, it demands a victim that is not only stripped naked but also killed. As the discontinued victim is killed, the witnesses receive what sacrifice has revealed and that is called sacred. The sacred is the continuity of the entity revealed to those who witnessed the ceremonial death of the discontinued individual. By severing the victim’s discontinuity, it has returned to the continuity of the essence. To live is to enter the essence, for life is mortal and the continuity of the essence is not.

The true meaning of this continuity is obscured, Bataille doesn’t even try to explain it, although he mentions it can be experienced through a mystical experience of the absence of discontinuous object. As such it cannot be willed and doesn’t need the right circumstances to present itself.

Poetry, according to Bataille, is parallel to mystical experience, it defines us but we cannot really speak about it. Through poetry we can transcend the profane reality and enter eternity, it leads us, “into death and through death into continuity: poetry is Eternity. / It is the sea / Gone into the sun.[1]

Continuity remains a mystery that can be approached but never really understood. Poetry will lead us there like the Virgil leads Dante to Paradise, and then it will fall silent. No matter how difficult concepts we develop, the essence will continue to evade them.

Although Bataille is an atheist and materialist philosopher his attitude toward the impossibility of speaking about the essence calls to mind the concept of numinous a term coined by Lutheran theologian Rudolf Otto.

His most famous work is probably Das Heilige (English title The Idea of the Holy). In this work, Otto argues that the concept of “the holy” usually conveys moral perfection. Even though moral perfection is implied, according to Otto “the holy” also contains an element, that is beyond the ethical sphere for which he used the term numinous. The numinous cannot be compared to anything known to man, it is a category sui generis that presents itself to us as totally Other. According to Otto, this quality can be described as mysterium tremendum et fascinosum – a mystery that is simultaneously terrifying and fascinating.

One of the subsequent authors strongly influenced by Otto’s concept was C. S. Lewis, who, in his book The Problems of Pain, described this concept:

“Suppose you were told there was a tiger in the next room: you would know that you were in danger and would probably feel fear. But if you were told ‘There is a ghost in the next room,’ and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind. It would not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost. It is ‘uncanny’ rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread. With the Uncanny one has reached the fringes of the Numinous. Now suppose that you were told simply ‘There is a mighty spirit in the room,’ and believed it. Your feelings would then be even less like the mere fear of danger: but the disturbance would be profound. You would feel wonder and a certain shrinking—a sense of inadequacy to cope with such a visitant and of prostration before it—an emotion which might be expressed in Shakespeare’s words ‘Under it my genius is rebuked.’ This feeling may be described as awe, and the object which excites it as the Numinous.”

In chapter 11 Otto speaks of different ways to express the numinous and even includes artistic expression although he limits it to architecture and music—magnificent pieces of art like gothic cathedrals or Bach’s Mass in H-minor. He doesn’t mention poetry as he limits himself to works of art that are so mighty as to inspire a sense of mystery, terror, and fascination all at once.

However, we cannot exclude references to poetry in previous pages where he speaks about elements of the numinous that can be found in different forms of use of the language. He quotes Bhagavad Gita when he speaks about the terrifying and fascinating aspects of the numinous. However, the most intriguing is the part where he argues that there are only two direct artistic means to talk about the numinous—darkness and silence, the latter, in my opinion becoming the key to understanding the role the poetry plays in approaching the numinous which I will address later.

When referring to Rudolf Otto in his book The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley writes, “The literature of religious experience abounds in references to the pains and terrors overwhelming those who have come, too suddenly, face to face with some manifestation of the mysterium tremendum. In theological language, this fear is due to the in-compatibility between man’s egotism and the divine purity, between man’s self-aggravated separateness and the infinity of God.”

Although this book, based on the author’s search of enlightenment by using mescaline, was widely criticized by religious teachers and theologians of all denominations and is taken with a grain of salt here as well for its reduction of the numinous to mysterium tremendum, Huxley’s quotation offers an important insight that I want to develop and explore the role of silence in poetry and approaching the numinous.

I believe it is the man’s egotism that fills him with fear of the very existence of pure, infinite, and absolute God. The role of the ego is to ensure the survival of an individual in everyday life. The ego is, to paraphrase Hobbes, the wolf that enables the competition with other wolves. It is focused on the individual, to their basic needs, their survival. Everything must serve the ego and only once its needs are fulfilled (which is never), others may approach to fulfill their needs. If this sounds familiar it is because it is a perfect representation of today’s world in which the economistic mantra never actually eliminated the concept of the numinous but rather replaced it with a feeble surrogate that is the individual, or more precisely, the ego. The ego has become the driving force of every social process and relationship. Through social media everyone has gained access to public space and a platform to fortify and expand their egotistic needs without limits. In a situation where everyone has access to the forum, the right to speak limitlessly, prolixity is unavoidable. It is a battle for speech where it is not the quality and wisdom of the words that counts, but the quantity and profane loudness with which they are delivered. Unfortunately, this tendency slowly but unstoppably creeps into contemporary poetry which is becoming a pale echo of a vacuous and mundane reality.

The numinous, however, puts the ego on a leash. By acknowledging the transcendent, absolute being, man is indeed faced with terrifying fear over the power above it wields over him, but recognizing the loving nature of that being also fills him with fascination and gratitude. Every religion conveys an example of a divine being suspending their divinity and sacrificing themselves for the salvation, benefit, or prosperity of man. There is no longer any need to fight to expand his territory, as it is boundless. The basis of man’s existence suddenly isn’t his nature, the individuum, but rather the hypostasis. He no longer exists as a species but rather as the totally other, no longer worried solely about his own survival, but attentive to the survival of others.

Realizing and acknowledging the existence of the numinous being also brings a person to the awareness of his own limitations especially regarding his logical and epistemological apparatus and his language. As a limited being he is unable to fully comprehend the unlimited and can never fully define it in words. One can use all the parables, metaphors, and other figures of speech, but sooner or later they will hit the limit of the pronounceable. One of the most prominent passages regarding this can be found in the Gospel of John, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” At the end of all things pronounceable there is silence. There always has been.

Like the spiritual language, poetry as a language sui generis knows that it is impossible to articulate the most essential experiences of mankind and is in constant search of new strategies to approach these experiences with words. At the same time, however, it knows when to go silent.

Silence is the fundamental element of poetry, even more important than words. Whether we follow Bataille’s concept of continuity or Otto’s numinous, we get a clear idea that words can only be an instrument with which to penetrate the profanity and open the door of transcendence which is in any case a realm of silence or at least a realm we can say nothing of.

St. Thomas Aquinas, one of mankind’s greatest minds, who was often critiqued for his dry intellectual and seemingly detached approach to God in spite being an accomplished poet and author of some of the most prominent Christian hymns, allegedly had a mystical revelation a few months before his death. On December 6, 1237, St. Thomas Aquinas put down his pen for good. He decided to leave his monumental work Summa Theologica unfinished at Question 99 of the Third Part. It is said that he explained his decision by saying: “I cannot go on… All that I have written seems to me like so much straw compared to what I have seen and what has been revealed to me.”

Being able to embrace silence has always been, in my opinion, the ultimate sacrifice, as well as wisdom. What we write as poets is a mere vessel, every poem springs from silence and returns into it as every life springs from eternity and returns to it through the portal of death just as another life is emerging from the other end. In that sense all we write is melete thanatou, a careful contemplation of death and silence, ours and of those that come across our verses. Dusting the strings that were entrusted to us, as a recently deceased Jesuit priest and poet Vladimir Kos alluded in one of his poems. That is, I think, enough.


[1] Rimbaud: Eternity (from Drunken Boat).

* The verse in the title is taken from Vladimir Kos: The Penultimate Poem (translated by Kristian Koželj).

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