I’ve always been struck — haunted, really — by Wallace Stevens’ phrase, in his great poem “Sunday Morning,” “Death is the mother of beauty.” [See yesterday's post, link above.] Like that Robert Bringhurst poem I quoted in a previous post, Stevens’ line was practically tattooed on my brain for years; it was a kind of credo by which I lived. Or, as “Postolka” makes clear, almost lived.
It’s the old carpe diem cry, Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, etc. etc. Except that Stevens, unlike Horace and Herrick, isn’t encouraging haste and excess in the face of time slipping from one’s grasp. “Sunday Morning,” right from its famous first lines, is all about slowness and deliberation, about savoring experience:
Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug, mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
No, Stevens believed that a concentration on death concentrates life, that we cannot see life clearly except through the lens of death, but that once we have seen it with such clarity, we can savor it. This is what I believed, and how I tried to live — until one day I found myself looking through the actual lens of death.
The view, it turned out, was quite different. From the moment I learned I had cancer — on my thirty-ninth birthday, from a curt voice mail message — not only was the world not intensified, it was palpably attenuated. I can still feel how far away everything — the people walking on the street beyond the window, the books on the shelf, my wife smiling up at me in the moment before I told her — suddenly seemed. And long after the initial shock, I felt a maddening, muffled quality to the world around me — which, paradoxically, went hand in hand with the most acute, interior sensations of pain.
It seemed as if the numbness was not mine, but the world’s, as if some energy had drained out of things. At some point I realized that for all my literary talk of the piquancy and poignancy that mortality imparts to immediate experience, part of my enjoyment of life had always been an unconscious assumption of its continuity.
Not necessarily a continuity of reality itself — the moment does pass, of course — but a continuity in memory at least, and a future that the act of memory implies (there must be somewhere from which to remember). Life is short, we say, in one way or another, but in truth, because we cannot imagine our own death until it is thrust upon us, we live in a land where only other people die.
“Death is the mother of beauty” is a phrase that could only have been written by a man for whom death was an abstraction, a vaguely pleasant abstraction at that. Remove futurity from experience and you leach meaning from it just as surely as if you cut out a man’s past. “Memory is the basis of individual personality,” Miguel de Unamuno writes, “just as tradition is the basis of the collective personality of a people. We live in memory and by memory, and our spiritual life is at bottom simply the effort of our memory to persist, to transform itself into hope, the effort of our past to transform itself into our future.”
In other words, we need both the past and the future to make our actions and emotions and sensations mean anything in the present.
Strictly speaking, though, the past and the future do not exist. They are both, to a greater or lesser degree, creations of the imagination. Anyone who tells you that you can live only in time, then, is not quite speaking the truth, since if we do not live out of time imaginatively, we cannot live in it actually. And if we can live out of time in our daily lives — indeed, if apprehending and inhabiting our daily lives demands that we in some imaginative sense live out of time — then is it a stretch to imagine the fruition of existence as being altogether outside of time?
From A Window
Incurable and unbelieving
in any truth but the truth of grieving,
I saw a tree inside a tree
as if the leaves had livelier ghosts.
I pressed my face as close
to the pane as I could get
to watch that fitful, fluent spirit
that seemed a single being undefined
or countless beings of one mind
haul its strange cohesion
beyond the limits of my vision
over the house heavenwards.
Of course I knew those leaves were birds.
Of course that old tree stood
exactly as it had and would
(but why should it seem fuller now?)
and though a man’s mind might endow
even a tree with some excess
of life to which a man seems witness,
that life is not the life of men.
And that is where the joy came in.
I wrote this poem a few months after getting my diagnosis. Nothing was planned or deliberate about it. I didn’t have the realization that an experience of reality can open into an experience of divinity and then go write a poem to illustrate my feelings. No, it was quite the reverse: I wrote the poem one day out of anguish, emptiness, grief — and it exploded into joy. I sought refuge in the half-conscious play of language and was rescued by a weave of meaning I never meant to make.
The poem taught me something, and one of the things it taught me was that if you do not “think” of God, in whatever way you find to do that, if God has no relation to your experience, if God is not in your experience, then experience is always an end in itself, and always, I think, a dead end.
Not only does experience open into nothing else, but that ulterior awareness, that spirit-cleansing whiff of the ultimate, never comes into the concrete details of existence either. You can certainly enjoy life like this; you can have a hell of a time. But I would argue that life remains merely something to be enjoyed, and that not only its true nature but also something within your true nature remains inert, unavailable, mute.
“From a Window” was one of a handful of poems I wrote after my diagnosis that gave me some sense of purchase and promise: the terrible vagueness of things was dispelled for a moment and I could see where I was standing, and could feel a way forward. (Feel a way forward: if someone had asked me at the time if I believed in an afterlife, I would have said no.
Yet my poems kept conjuring their eccentric heavens, kept prodding me toward new ways of understanding that verb “believe.”) It was puzzling, then, and troubling, to find myself as time went on writing poems that seemed to give up the gains I had made, seemed not simply devoid of divinity, but to relish that fact:
It is good to sit even a rotting body
in sunlight uncompromised
by God, or lack of God,
to see the bee beyond
all the plundered flowers
air-stagger toward you
and like a delicate helicopter
hover above your knee
until it finds you to be
not sweet but at least
not flinching, its hair-legs
on the hair of your leg
a coolness through you
like a soul of nerve.
Not only is there no God in this poem, the very possibility is pushed roughly to the side. And yet I felt some saving otherness everywhere in me and around me when I wrote it. There is no possibility of heaven in this poem; indeed there is an implicit contempt for the notion. And yet I felt — during that brief marriage of word and world that poetry is — projected into dimensions of existence I could never have imagined before writing the poem, or could only have imagined but never felt.
Can there be such a thing as an anti-devotional devotional poem? Hopkins and Herbert both thought that God circumscribed imagination, that faith required drawing certain lines inside of their own minds that they dared not cross, or if they crossed (for they certainly did), then they whipped themselves for it afterward. I understand the dilemma but disagree with the solution. If faith requires you to foreclose on an inspiration, surely it is not faith.
The question of exactly which art is seeking God, and seeking to be in the service of God, is more complicated than it might seem. There is something in all original art that will not be made subject to God, if we mean by being made “subject to God” a kind of voluntary censorship or willed refusal of the mind’s spontaneous and sometimes disturbing intrusions into, and extensions of, reality.
But that is not how that phrase ought to be understood. In fact we come closer to the truth of the artist’s relation to divinity if we think not of being made subject to God, but of being subjected to God — our individual subjectivity being lost and rediscovered within the reality of God. Human imagination is not simply our means of reaching out to God but God’s means of manifesting himself to us.
It follows that any notion of God that is static is — since it asserts singular knowledge of God and seeks to limit his being to that knowledge — blasphemous. “God’s truth is life,” as Patrick Kavanagh says, “even the grotesque shapes of its foulest fire.” One part of that truth, for even the most devout among us, is the void of godlessness — and sometimes, mysteriously, the joy of that void.
The same impulse that leads me to sing of God leads me to sing of godlessness.
God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him. . . The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God.
The gods are back, companions. Right now they have just entered this life; but the words that revoke them, whispered underneath the words that reveal them, have also appeared that we might suffer together.
Sometimes God calls a person to unbelief in order that faith may take new forms.