Monday, May 28, 2012

esoteric outbreaks in the labyrinth...

Concurrent with reading and writing on Wagner (see my opera blog), my ongoing interest in esoterica, the “secret histories” of the world, has been stimulated by recent connections between seemingly disparate subjects. Two fascinating pairs, in fact: the “mad” French poet Nerval and the German philosopher-poet known as Novalis (“one who opens up new land”) and two studies of the Renaissance, by Frances Yates and Walter Pater. Yet another pairing sparked the following syncretist attempt at connection, and that is Wagner’s visionary writing on Weber’s Der Freischütz.

"In the heart of the Bohemian Forest, old as the world, lies the “Wolfsschlucht”; its legend lingered till the Thirty Years War, which destroyed the last trace of German grandeur…" Wagner is describing the setting of the pivotal “Wolf’s Glen” scene in Weber’s opera in which the protagonist, Max seals his pact with the “Dark Hunter,” the Mephistophelean Samiel. Wagner’s reference to the Bohemian setting, the “grandeur” of German lore and legend, along with the fantastic and supernatural bent of his own imagination, connect this most enigmatic of geniuses to another episode of the world’s secret history.

The Thirty Years War saw both the climax and the quashing of the “Rosicrucian Enlightenment,” a movement of visionary mysticism associated with the Stewart princess Elizabeth (daughter of King James) and her husband Frederick V, the Elector Palatine of the Rhine. Disparagingly known as the “Winter King and Queen of Bohemia,” their demise following their defeat at Prague has overshadowed one of the most fascinating chapters “and most profound ironies” in the history of thought. This late-flowering “Enlightenment” at the end of the Renaissance gave birth to the so-called “Age of Reason.” Through a usurping reversal, the Rosicrucian Enlightenment was all but erased by the Cartesian era it helped engender. This is another example of the “Master and Emissary” dichotomy Iain McGilchrist so adroitly describes in his book of that name about the paradigm reversal of the brain’s hemisphere. Or, how the “wrong” half of the brain has dominated its right side. Reading The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, by Renaissance specialist Frances Yates, has piqued my curiosity and aroused my own syncretist tendencies.

The esoteric or hermetic traditions, like Rosicrucianism or Freemasonry, are syncretist “systems” whose theories aim at unity through harmony. Syncretist thought seeks the reconciliation of humanism and religion, the union of the “old [pagan] gods and the new [monotheistic] one(s),” or the sacred and profane. The individual is a symbolic microcosm of the macrocosm that is the universe. These fascinating and mysterious “schools” or “societies” have always been suspect and misunderstood, and therefore subject to dismissal, scorn or violent persecution. The esoteric traditions have in common various combinations of mystical, aesthetic and scientific thought like Kabbalah, astrology, alchemy and magic, music, architecture and philosophy, mathematics, geometry and chemistry.

An esteemed British scholar, Frances Yates devoted her career to research on the esoteric and hermetic traditions in and around the European Renaissance. The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (Routledge, 1972, 2002) is an engaging study aimed at correcting an imbalance about an important “phase of culture” that has nearly “slipped out of history.” I believe Wagner, like many a “romantic” artist (from across the various historical periods of culture), was more in tune with the esoteric traditions than many biographers and critics allow. In contrast, attention has always been paid to the Masonic influences on Mozart. The Magic Flute is a veritable allegory of the symbols and rites of the Freemasons. This “divulging of secrets” by the upstart composer is the stuff of scandal, which is another reason Peter Shaffer’s controversial play Amadeus is vital theatre. It transcends the confines of biographical “fact” and connects to more abstract truth. And it’s great art.

The controversies surrounding the biographies of “eccentric” artists like Giordano Bruno and Robert Schumann (or Nerval and Artaud) have always threatened to upstage their visionary originality. Syncretist worldviews, and esoteric traditions in general prize equally the sciences and the arts, philosophy and literature, music and mathematics. Intuition and cognition are partners and not opponents in this universe. Openness to the mystical, metaphysical or supernatural realm extends to other mysterious worlds like alchemy and magic. Esoteric artists, as seekers of truth, strive to remain intellectually grounded in the sciences and cultivate the insatiable thirst for knowledge and experience. This is not to say such visionaries are “sorcerers” or members of “the occult.” They may, however, be called “initiates.” Like Wagner, they strive for a unifying, reconciling oeuvre. Rather than imitating life, art seeks to represent it in an “Ideal” form.

I am not making any claims for Wagner’s “membership” in a literal or figurative chain of hermetic artists. I simply perceive a connection between his life and works and the mysterious metaphysical “powers” that propel the prototypical German romantic opera, Weber’s masterpiece, Der Freischütz. Weber’s opera – like Gounod’s version of Faust – deals with the devil and ends with redemption, a unifying theme across theater and ritual. It is the leitmotif of Wagner’s music dramas. Reconciliation is one of the principal motifs uniting the various schools of esoteric thought, the Renaissance, and its re-incarnation in the Romantic movements of the 19th century.

Wagner said Weber’s orchestration “seemed to me like a greeting from the spirit world,” and eagerly confessed to a “sense of eeriness that had always excited me.” Subject to vivid visions, dreams and nightmares throughout his life, Wagner’s prose can reach heights of oneiric fancy. The boundaries between truth and imagination (or fact and fiction) and consciousness and dream are porous in this mysterious realm where creativity is master and reason is its loyal emissary. “Isn’t it romantic?”

Novalis, creator of the romantic archetype of the “blue flower” of longing and desire, was a master of the aphorism and fragment. Many of the fascinating hedgehogs in the labyrinth are his. “The mysterious way leads inward.” The “highest task of education is to take command of one’s transcendental self – to be at once the I of its I.” (from Novalis: Philosophical Writings, translated and edited by Margaret Mahony Stoljar. SUNY, 1997.) This is neither solipsism nor narcissism, but psychodynamic individuation. The “owning” of one’s “I” is necessary to realize one’s potential in the lifelong process of becoming one’s “self.” Nietzsche is one of many poets and philosophers to use such aphoristic fragments like those pioneered by Novalis.

One of the gifts of literature – of poetry and philosophy in particular (interchangeable terms where Novalis is concerned) – is its naming power. According to Stoljar, “Novalis had set out to redefine the relation between the intuitive and cognitive functions of the self, between feeling and reflection.” Or, as we like to say, “heart and head.” The “interactive process that Novalis calls ordo inversus is one of synthesis, harmony and reconciliation. When he states, “the world must be made Romantic,” he is not talking about a rose-colored sentimentality, but an integration of sentiment and intellect and spirit. So, heart and head and soul. Stoljar continues: “Through the working of the ordo inversus, our intuitive perception of objects and ideas is transformed into cognition as we distinguish them by name. Naming is perhaps the first and the simplest form of symbolization; once a name is established, it takes on a functional value of its own, giving form to our intuited understanding.” Names help us understand the world and ourselves.

Another aphorism cryptically states, “several names are of benefit to an idea.” This characterizes the non-solid, malleable form of poetic thinking. Its inability to be pinned down is one of the reasons its power remains mysterious. This may help explain why some find it unapproachable. “Poetry creates rather than imitates.” The same can be said for music. The joining of the two in opera makes for an inimitable and all the more potent creative force.

Like all visionaries, Novalis was ahead of his time and has been more appreciated with hindsight. Another term applied to his poetic philosophizing is “organic reasoning.” Influenced by the polymath genius Goethe, Novalis was working on an encyclopedic philosophical notebook before his death at age 29 in 1801. The “General Draft,” writes Stoljar, “ranges over philosophy and religion, science and mathematics, politics, literature and the arts, sexuality and psychology.” Such range is difficult to catalog, and impossible to categorize using the compartmentalizing tendencies of Cartesian logic or binary reasoning (“either/or” is “closed” reasoning, and “both/and” is open). Novalis, like the esoteric hermetic thinkers before him, was an early example of a thinker we’d call “holistic.” Education of the entire human being required teaching the individual how to think with all of the faculties. “The contemplation of the antiquities must be taught physically.” This “thinking in the body” must also be “poetic.” He referred to the “art of using all the senses” as nothing less than “magic,” and cited “love” as “the foundation of the possibility of magic.” If that sounds a bit “esoteric,” consider how many times one hears (or speaks) of the “miracle” of “true love.”

Stoljar describes the “exhilarating vigour” of reading these fragments and aphorisms, “that stems from their disconcerting heterogeneity.” Anyone who finds such “magical” or “alchemical” thinking disconcerting has presumably already left off reading. As mentioned above, the Rosicrucian Enlightenment is just one of the traditions concerned with the mysteries. Kabbalah, Masonry, and the “pagan” mythologies of classical antiquity – whose “revival” was the original inspiration for the Renaissance itself – are but a handful of names. But as Novalis reminds us, names are powerful symbols; they are essential clues in decoding the “secrets” of the esoteric traditions. Let’s examine one.

Parnassus is a mountain in Greece above Delphi. Literally. The student of the classics knows, moreover, Delphi was home to not only the famous oracle of Apollo, but was home to the Sun god himself. Parnassus is not only associated with Apollo, it is the home of the Muses. It is thus the “peak” of poetry and song. Is it any wonder bards of every age invoke a “renaissance” of this beloved “lost” world? A reference to Parnassus might “simply” be a classical cipher or a Hellenist association. And it may penetrate deeper below the surface to indicate ideals, aspirations or point towards some hidden knowledge or mystery.

The “Parnassian school” refers to a group of 19th century French poets every student of classical voice should know. They were not as famous as the composers who set their exquisitely balanced verse (Fauré was chief among them). Yet their influence on poets and composers, from Baudelaire and Verlaine to Debussy, changed the landscape of French aesthetics. Gérard de Nerval is sometimes grouped with the Parnassians (with his friend, Théophile Gautier and Leconte de Lisle). But Nerval, as I have attempted to demonstrate elsewhere, was also a visionary esoteric, and not a “mere” classicist. He imbues names and references with layers of explosively packed meaning. A poet who speaks of “that privileged and oneiric experience of time which ‘concentrates an entire century of action into a minute of dream,’” is not interested in proving his mettle as a scholar. The nine muses of Parnassus, whose mother was Mnemosyne (Memory), spoke in Nerval’s ear with increasing frequency during the last few years of his stormy life. Variations of “Sing, Muse” and “Speak, Memory” have whispered from the lips of bards from before the time of Homer to the ever-longed-for time of worldwide renaissance. They whisper still. Can you hear them?

Yates refers to a tract called “the general reformation of the whole wide world.” It circulated in tandem with the so-called “Rosicrucian manifestos.” The Venetian philosopher Boccalini wrote a satire called “News from Parnassus.” Satire depends upon the discerning intelligence of its intended readership for effect, and with various degrees of thinness, disguises its subversive agenda with ironic humor. Heine, Swift and Twain are romantic masters of this art. Rabelais and Cervantes were famous Renaissance incarnations of it. Boccalini’s readers would have recognized his sympathies with the Rosicrucian enlightenment. Yates cites a reference to Thomas More (author of Utopia), who “complains to Apollo of the spread of the heresy.” Unlike the bitterly ironic reversal that saw this esoteric enlightenment killed in its infancy, the author intends a subversive reversal. “Heresy” here does not refer to unorthodox creeds or “blasphemous” tracts (like the claims hurled at the Rosicrucians and their kin). Boccalini, an esteemed colleague of Galileo, invokes fellow visionary Thomas More in enlisting Parnassian support for the “confrontation… with a reactionary world.” Tyranny is the real heresy.

Galileo, More and Francis Bacon may be more familiar names than Paracelsus, Mirandola, Bruno and Boehme. Each of these hermetic philosophers and mystical alchemists deserves to be invoked more widely from Memory, the literal and figurative mother of the muses. Yates’s book is a great starting point.

One of the stimulating aspects of such reading and study is the connectedness of it all. Robert Fludd figures prominently in the Rosicrucian Enlightenment. The Anglican philosopher is also the inspiration for Booker-prize winning novelist Hilary Mantel’s novella, Fludd. Her note at the book’s head states, “The real Fludd (1574-1637) was a physician, scholar, and alchemist. In alchemy, everything has a literal and factual description, and in addition a description that is symbolic and fantastical.” I followed the critical acclaim garnered by her prize-winning historical novel of Henry VIII, Wolf Hall. I encountered an aphorism from Fludd, however, in a book of depth psychology by the Jungian analyst, James Hollis. Jung might not credit such serendipity as literal “synchronicity,” but in Mantel’s “symbolic and fantastical” world, we shall call it so.

In honor of their shared birthdays on May 22, I wrote a little essay about Nerval which began by mentioning his connection to Wagner. Though Baudelaire’s and Debussy’s writings on the Master of Bayreuth are the most well known French examples of Wagner criticism, Nerval got there first. I tried to “read” some of Nerval’s esoteric “code” in my essay. Thumbing through my Nerval volume again in the company of Novalis and Wagner, Fludd and Yates (and Pater, with whom we shall conclude), I am struck by several references his editor and translator, Richard Sieburth, has included in the endnotes to Angélique. He refers to an “Italian magus” and “the mysteries of Egyptian Masonry” in one. The next four notes refer to: a “mystical illuminist and theosophist;” Nostradamus; “Jakob Boehme (1575-1614), German mystic and student of Paracelsian philosophy;” and finally, “Frederick William II…both he and his prime ministers were Rosicrucians.”

Reading Nerval’s Angélique on the eve of his 204th birthday caused one of the “thin partitions” between the levels of consciousness and the spirit world to dissolve. I experienced fantastic visions and dreams, and wrote the following gibberish as a personal and hermetic birthday tribute to Gérard and Richard.


What is madness? A transplantation out of essence
but into the abysses of the exterior interior.

(Artaud on Nerval)

I felt transplanted out of essence last night (May 21) reading Nerval’s Angélique. The vertiginous déjà vu of entering a world at once strangely familiar and utterly strange, eerily present yet interminably distant, unreachable except through my willingness to yield, submerge and disappear into the poet’s “waking dream,” his “supernaturalist reverie.” Is Eliot conjuring Nerval when he sings, “You are the music / while the music lasts?” Did I merge with the elusive de Bucquoy, Nerval’s fictional author of Incidents of the rarest sort? If so, it was a fascinating semi-consciousness that augured operatic dreams full of rhapsodic Wagnerian music.

Nerval’s heroine’s first lover leaves her a letter of exquisite invention:

…my need to see you again, has impelled me to return to your side so that I might humbly bask in the radiance of all your brilliant attributes and accomplishments, the lure of which has entirely stolen both my soul and my heart, and yet I am honoured to be the victim of such larceny…

Alas, “this letter proved fatal to its young author…caught red-handed by her father.” The poor gentleman “died four days later, the victim of a mysterious murder.” Artaud reminds us of Nerval’s tragic death, one in which he would join his idol nearly a century later. We are all victims of one form of larceny or another.

…let’s not forget that Gérard de Nerval died hanged… and that suicide cannot be anything other than a protest against a control and I really believe it is that of time, not on the side where time is the time that follows us in present life, but on that where present life rebels against the presence of eternity.

Artaud’s diagnosis sounds as absurd as Camus’ reading of Sisyphus smiling at his fate, blithely facing eternity, endless repetition and the tenebrous shades.

But from time to time, I mean at long intervals in the tenebrificated space of time, a poet has uttered a cry to make the little children come back…the beings born in the tumefying eschar of his heart of a suicidal immortal who comes to bell their drama in the foreground, the tragedy of their will to clarity: To illuminate the insistent tenebrae as I would say if I were Mallarmé, but as I will say like the Antonin Artaud that I am, the insistence of these tenebrae which rise up around my will to exist.

Our “will to exist” expresses itself in our “little children,” our artistic “daughters of the heart and of fire” (to conflate the two mad poets and their lyrical personages). What visions may yet appear ere l’anniversaire de Nerval est passé? What secret book lies within arm’s reach, its magic waiting to be conjured from lips prepared to sing its hieroglyphs into incantatory music?

22 May Tributes (Birthday letters to Gérard and Richard from Scotty)

I. (to G.d.N.)
Am I putting on its cloak
is this throbbing in my head
my brain about to implode
from the vertiginous thrill
of this mystical communion, Gérard?
Have I heard you correctly
Shall I await further instructions
or is this already the descent?
I do not fear Death
or rather, I am not afraid
to face him and confront
my fate. Thank you for
sharing the silent howl
of lyrical protest.
I embrace your eminence.

II. (to RW)
Was that you riding a bicycle
Richard, like Loge on that scooter
in the avant-garde Valencian
production of the Ring? So
happy birthday, Leubald, 199
and counting more than a
century’s worth of red balloons
to crown your Fest and
fly above that infamous
immodest ambition that puts
Scottish usurpers to shame. You’d
have to be mad to deny it
and even more touched to attempt
such vaulting theatricality – a 4,000
line über-Hamlet at 15?
A 16-hour tetralogy 40 years
in the making remaking a genre
and yourself, idol of the opera
house and scourge of God’s elect
to which ghosts do we pay
homage and which specters cast
away like the devils we love
to banish night after intoxicating night…

Never mind all that. The connections have continued across this week of reading and dreaming and writing. Best known for the aphorism, “all art aspires to the condition of music,” the philosopher and aesthete Walter Pater (1839-1894) is my favorite writer this Memorial Day weekend. A friend of Oscar Wilde (and inspiration for aspects of Dorian Gray), Pater’s Studies in the History of the Renaissance is another “must” on the reading list. It starts with the era of the Troubadours in a microcosmic “renaissance” within the Middle ages, and ends with the 18th century German aesthete, Winckelmann. “A lover of strange souls” (by his own admission), Pater is a “Renaissance man” for all the ages. He includes essays on the aforementioned esoteric, Pico della Mirandola, and the Renaissance icons Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci. He writes about Michelangelo’s poetry, an underappreciated aspect of that artist’s genius (though the facet most loved by Britten and Pears). He draws a portrait of the ideal artist and man, the Diaphaneité: “the diaphanous character,” innocent and transparent, “the true and visible soul or spirit.” Matthew Beaumont’s trenchant introduction to the slim Oxford World’s Classics paperback is an excellent entrée to this important, influential and controversial thinker. Like Novalis, Pater believed communion with and in art involved the entire human being; the work of the critic was not the exclusive purview of the traditional academic, trained philosopher or thinker.

Rejecting the orthodox school of the “abstract definition of beauty for the intellect,” he required a “certain kind of temperament, the power of being deeply moved” by works of art which were “receptacles of so many powers or forces.” The duty of the critic or student or amateur then, is to “trace the action” of the artist’s “unique incommunicable faculty, that strange mystical sense of a life.” His “diaphanous character” has no agenda other than the union of the senses and the spirit.

Pater referred to the Renaissance as “an outbreak of the human spirit,” as “the movement in which the human mind wins for itself a new kingdom of feeling and sensation of thought.” From the auguries of the Renaissance in the Middle Ages to its rebirth in the Romantic age, Pater “traces the thread of light that runs through the richness,” according to Beaumont. He aligns Pater’s work with other idealistic philosophers like those chronicled by Yates. Pater’s “thread” runs through the 19th century and the modern era, “in the hope that, like a late form of Romanticism, it might eventually redeem the dispiriting realities of life in an industrial society. Like Romanticism, it thus constitutes a critique of the present and, at least potentially, a utopian alternative to it.” Beaumont anticipates the charges such lofty claims always provoke. “Paterian aestheticism is not an escape … it is an attempt to redeem.” Ah, there’s our theme. He “situates the alienated subject that he hopes to emancipate.” And he sits him in one of the most fertile periods of humanity, where thought, invention, creativity and discovery were equally aflame. Adept with clear logic to balance his flights of fancy, Pater observes: "Theories which bring into connection with each other modes of thought and feeling, periods of taste, forms of art and poetry, which the narrowness of men’s minds constantly tends to oppose each other, have a great stimulus to the intellect and are almost always worth understanding."

Writing about the rich period of the Troubadours, citing the legends of Tannhäuser and Venus, Héloise and Abelard, his opening chapter refers to an even lesser known aubade, “Aucassin and Nicolette.” Praising the “intenser sentiment,” and the “profound and energetic spirit” of poetry that juxtaposed the sacred and profane with daring virtuosity, he could be writing about the Rosicrucians or Nerval or Camus. "One of the strongest characteristics of the outbreak of the reason and imagination, of that assertion of the liberty of the heart in the middle age… was its antinomianism, its spirit of rebellion and revolt…"

I will conclude with Pater’s summary of the style of Pico della Mirandola. One of the hermetic mystics in Yates study, he was a prototypical “Renaissance man” who lived in Dante’s Florence. He influenced a subsequent generation of artists known as the Florentine Camerata, the founders of the genre we call opera. Pater finds with Mirandola, "a constant sense in reading him, that his thoughts…are connected with springs beneath of deep and passionate emotion; and when he explains the grades or steps by which the soul passes from the love of a physical object to the love of unseen beauty, and unfolds the analogies between this process and other movements upwards of human thought, there is a glow and vehemence in his words." And the flame that burns in such an artist, as Pater writes of Pico, will never “lose its vitality.”

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