Thursday, November 25, 2010

To awaken to wonder...

In the index of Benjamin Britten's Poets: An anthology of the poems he set to music (Carcanet, 1996), a quick tally lists nearly 100 authors. Given the various origins of those popular names, "Anonymous" and "Traditional" the number of poetic sources that inspired Britten's creative springs is much higher.

Britten was born on November 22, the day honoring the patron saint of music, Cecilia. Today is Thanksgiving and Britten is on my annual top ten list of composers (which includes--in no particular order, as the list and its "ranking" change with the seasons--Mahler, Debussy, Bach, Brahms, Verdi, Barber, Henze, Beethoven & Sibelius).

One poet who does not make Britten's list is Rainer Maria Rilke. But Friedrich Hölderlin does (Britten's Hölderlin Fragments are one of his great but under-appreciated song cycles). I have been thinking in fragments, using them like putty to try and connect varying strands of poetry, music, art and life.

We left off musing on visions via Britten (A Midsummer Night's Dream), Kushner (Angels in America) and co. Rilke's ten Duino Elegies (along with the Sonnets to Orpheus) are his greatest poems. They call down/forth/upon Angels regularly. Among other associations, angels symbolize the innocence and purity of childhood. Tinkerbell could as easily be an angel as a fairy, no?

The morning of St Cecilia's day, I dreamt I was living in Chicago and still having the Virginian-Pilot delivered to my high-rise, sparsely furnished apartment. One of Shostakovich's wonderfully playful symphonic movements resounded in my ear. After waking, I read Luke's account of "Let the children come to me:"

Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.

Shostakovich and Britten were friends who performed together and dedicated works to one another in the late 60's. Both composers revered the symphonies of Gustav Mahler. Both retained a childlike wonder that is reflected in the music they wrote throughout their prodigious careers. Such forthright clarity and appealing directness does not always appeal to the critics or cognoscenti. "Suffer the little children," indeed.

Thanks to McGilchrist's trenchant The Master and his Emissary, I have been musing on the word anaesthetic. The absence of sensation. Numbness. What an apt diagnosis for one of the ailments that plagues our species. Both the "illusions of reason" that anaesthetize us to feeling and the materialism (in all its guises) that opposes the aesthetic.

Our an-aesthetic modern world must "attend, singing, to the trace of the fugitive gods" according to Martin Heidegger's Poetry, Language, Thought (Harper, 1971). McGilchrist's book on "The Divided Brain and the Making of the Modern World" (cited below) traces a brief history of philosophy from Zeno's paradoxes to Heidegger and beyond.

In reflecting below about humor's ability to awaken the senses (laughter therapy, anyone?!?) I am reminded of the dichotomy & duality--particularly pronounced in the US--between the accepted and the taboo (sacred & profane, spirit & flesh, polite & rude, et al). Nowhere is this more apparent (or complicated) than where the body is concerned. Yet it is only in and through our bodies that we experience the world. One of my favorite "classic" movies is "about" this very thing. Powell and Pressberger's visually stunning Black Narcissus charts how "secular matters consume five missionary nuns who head to the Himalayas to establish an Anglican school" (it's available to watch instantly on Netflix, but deserves the big screen).

Deborah Kerr's "Sister Superior" would reluctantly concur with McGilchrist's statement that "truth is arrived at through engagement with the world." Yet how many obstacles come between the "bending toward of spirit and intellect and ear" that attempts to form the "dynamic reciprocity" that constitutes authentic engagement with the world?

I am grateful to McGilchrist for reminding me of Heidegger's essays collected in Poetry, Language, Thought. The answer(s) to the question posed in its central entry, "What are Poets For?" is mediated through Hölderlin and Rilke.

"The poet in the time of the world's night utters the holy" according to Heidegger's reading of Hölderlin. "To be a poet in a destitute time means: to attend, singing," and this calls forth a wholly other version of "O holy night!"

Rilke picks up the other-worldly song of connectivity in the Duino Elegies, echoing (Heidegger's contemporary) Wittgenstein's injunction "to awaken to wonder." The "other" (which is really the "real," that which signifies the truly significant) is encountered in the "Open." This is the proverbial "road less traveled" of the Soul that poetry has always plotted. Rilke's language in the Eighth Elegy also resonates with sacred poetry and proverbs.

...for almost from the first we take a child
and twist him round and force him to gaze
backwards and take in structure, not the Open...

(translated by Edward Snow. North Point, 2001).

Matthew's account of the metaphor of the children reads (in the English Standard Version of the Bible) "unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." The poet rightly interprets the parable as a call to re-turn to the prelapsarian state of childlike innocence. Rilke--along with his contemporary Carl Jung--treats this paradox as a metaphor to re-awaken to wonder.

William Blake's great cycles of Songs of Innocence and Experience chart two sides of that coin of the realm. From childlike open-ness to adult self-consciousness, innocence and corruption are themes that also inspired (among others) Mahler, Britten & Shostakovich.

Further on in the same Elegy, Rilke echoes the timeless wisdom of the "Sermon on the Mount" in diagnosing what we have lost.

...not for a single day, do we
have that pure space ahead of us into which flowers
endlessly open...

"Consider the lilies..." And consider the word secure. "Securus, sine cura means: without care" (Heidegger). Rilke often speaks of parting, leave-taking and the German word Abschied figures prominently in his poetic thought and thinking poetry. Our opposition (by our very nature as "corrupt" human beings) to the natural world of the "Open" manifests in our relationship to the same world as a "functionary of technology." How timely these dead poets are! Heidegger goes on, parsing Rilke,

"The man of the age of technology, by this parting, opposes himself to the Open. This parting is not a parting from, it is a parting against."

And in those prepositions are contained a world of difference. Or Différance, as Derrida would say. But that's another essay.

Heidegger--though offensively reactionary in aspects of his life--is not advocating regression away from technology. He returns to Hölderlin:

But where there is danger, there grows
also what saves.

Rilke's Elegy plays with the dynamic between the "creature" world and us. Lacking the signifying consciousness of human beings, plants and animals are both in and of the world. But the very humanity which places us outside the world of the "Open" opens up new possibility for "Being" in relation to it.

For Heidegger, poetry is the purest form of (linguistic) thought, which makes reading his "philosophy" an adventure:

"Man is at times more venturesome than the venture,
more fully (abundantly) being than the Being of beings...
The more venturesome daring does not produce a defense...
the more venturesome daring accomplishes, but it does not produce."

And in that non- or im-material production of which we are capable comes our "outside all caring" secureness. Today's Pilot contained an irritating abundance of ads for the so-called "black friday" sales. The front page, however, featured a beautiful aerial view of surf and shore, giving water pride of place in the list of things for which to be thankful.

While Andrei Tarkovsky's great (sci-fi) film Solaris winds down, the protagonist muses philosophically while looking out of the titular space station at the swirling "ocean" of light and clouds that represent both a parallel universe and an alternate, "other" consciousness.

And Tolstoy...his suffering over the impossibility of loving all of mankind...
Love is a feeling we can experience
But can never explain...
One can explain the concept.
You love that which you can lose:
Yourself, a woman, a homeland...
There are so few of us here,
A billion altogether. A handful!
...Maybe we're here in order to experience people
As a reason for love

Heidegger notes the concurrence of Pascal's discovery of "the logic of the heart as over against the logic of [Cartesian] calculating reason." Descartes' cogito ergo sum is but one of many wonders.

I don't know if Tarkovsky read Rilke or Heidegger. But poetic thinking like the "presence of of such boundaries, can overflow into the unbounded whole of the open" could pour out of the mouths of one of his characters.

Rilke could be foreshadowing the Russian director's great film (remade in 2002 by Steven Soderbergh and starring George Clooney; do see the original) when he writes about his Elegies in a letter:

To me it seems more and more as though our customary consciousness lives on the tip of a pyramid whose base within us...widens out so fully that the farther we find ourselves able to descend into it, the more generally we appear to be merged into those things that, independent of time and space, are given in our earthly, in the widest sense worldly, existence.

"The Latin word verum (true) is cognate with the Sanskrit word meaning to choose or believe" notes McGilchrist, before observing that "we create the world by attending to it in a particular way."

I wonder as I wander through these books and films and scores in the beaches of consciousness and islands of soul how life will loop and circle while we pay varying degrees of attention to it and ourselves...

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