10.28.2009

Image and Idea

When I started loving literature, I was drawn to transcendental abstractions and (embarrassingly) axiomatic wisdom. Trite little Nietzschean or Emersonian truths: "Wisdom sets bounds to even knowledge" or "Beauty is the mark God sets upon virtue." I think I liked them because they seemed to answer questions that I hadn't asked yet--maybe I thought I was saving myself time by preemptively learning by rote what can only, really, be learned by experience.

But for the past five years or so, I've been much more attracted to imagistic thought. My favorite line in Whitman's "Song of Myself" is not anything like "Out of the dimness opposite equals advance," but this perfectly "concrete" description: "The prostitute draggles her shawl, her bonnet bobs on her tipsy and pimpled neck."

Think about writing that line. About what you would have had to observe to write that line. Whitman can write that because he has seen it, he has noticed precisely that prostitute, that draggling shawl, that bonnet & that pimpled neck. Think about what it implies about how we ought to look -- about how Whitman's vision contradicts my own father's, who would've told me "it's impolite to stare" at such a draggling shawl, at such a pimply neck. More than any abstraction of philosophy, Whitman's list moves me to widen the circumference of my responsibility.

And it's this, I've finally realized, that keeps me from forgetting about Jesus altogether. Jesus helps me to answer the question of what G-d is. Ecce Homo. Behold even this man. Of course, even more important than noticing dead-Jesus is noticing his contemporary parallels, those who, like him, have been beaten and dragged by civilization. In this view, to refuse to behold Jesus is to refuse to behold G-d. It is no more or less unethical than turning your back on Whitman's prostitute. G-d as I understand it is just those things: Jesus and the prostitute, and more especially their living parallels.

I was listening to a podcast this morning devoted to a Gnostic text called The Thunder, The Perfect Mind. Like Whitman's Leaves, this text steers awareness with images, not with abstraction:
And do not banish me from your sight.
And do not make your voice hate me, nor your hearing.
Do not be ignorant of me anywhere or any time. Be on your guard!
Do not be ignorant of me.
For I am the first and the last.
I am the honored one and the scorned one.
I am the whore and the holy one.
I am the wife and the virgin.
I am and the daughter.
I am the members of my mother.
I am the barren one
and many are her sons.
I am she whose wedding is great,
and I have not taken a husband.
I am the midwife and she who does not bear.
I am the solace of my labor pains.
I am the bride and the bridegroom,
and it is my husband who begot me.
I am the mother of my father
and the sister of my husband
and he is my offspring.
I am the slave of him who prepared me.
It's worth noting that Thunder wasn't discovered until 1940-something... Whitman couldn't have been plagiarizing. But this strategy: notice me, and me, notice both -- is central in both texts. I find it decidedly more effective than a text that might read something like this: "When considering an argument, always be sure to research contrary views."

If you're going to notice only one among pairs, I suppose it seems more noble to notice the whore (not the holy one) and the scorned one (not the honored one)... but these texts demand that our attention be there too. These texts obliterate distinctions. And it's also noteworthy that neither of the texts pushes us to do anything about what we see.

I have wondered before whether Ethics, at a deep level, may only consist of seeing right, or correctly -- no, just seeing. In my view, philosophy (and "theory") generally fail in encouraging this foundation by their refusal to show particulars. What poetry and fiction do right is offer us image where idea is insufficient.

2 comments:

Monica said...

So does this make Jesus G-d, or simply a tool to enable us to understand G-d?

Casey said...

Monica -- I think it means that there's no G-d that isn't Jesus.

It makes the "One G-d" of Judaism not separate, not transcendent, but present. You're it. I'm it. Jesus was it.

If a draggling prostitute stepped to a given theologian and said, "I am that of which you speak," you'd have a similar situation to the one Jesus created (minus the power-structures that led to his crucifixion).

What's interesting is this: Orthodox Judaism would certain laugh at the prostitute and not take her seriously -- but so would contemporary "Christianity," which I think has failed to understand the entire point of their own gospels.

Have you ever read the Chandogya Upanishad? (chapter 6 in particular)

"Thou Art That." This is how I understand Christianity -- through the lens of Hinduism.

So... yes, both. Maybe.