Monday, November 01, 2010

The Discovery of Heaven

To Harry Mulisch

Now that you're far, from the questions asked by man, I cannot help but wondering what that heaven looks like, whether there are similarities at all between the rows of houses and the canals underneath, whether you can hear the waters all the while wars take place elsewhere. I wonder if the land was finally born in you, if there's any lands! If I could wish for something today, is for you to tell me that heaven looks exactly like the earth, that there's no other life, that the bricks smell the same when they're punctured by the bayonets. Are you still writing? Is it allowed to write? Sometimes it seems to me as if the earth is a heaven turned upside down, we are hanging from above glued to a crutch looking out into the vastness of the universe, as if the earth is that void that we see down below when we reach for the Wadden sea and imagine that that's where the world ends. I wonder if heaven has names, if heaven has hatred, because otherwise, what would be then of the language of love? I wonder what they think of the churches, what they think of the dead, that are buried somewhere, like Our Lord, that could never rise to heaven, because there's just too much soil sheltering them from this absurd vertiginous freedom, too much water dividing the places and the faces. My gut feeling says that heaven is very different, and that I wish not to go, that there're no super powers, that there're no higher truths, that you're just waiting for us there, to tell us to come back, to ride on the next bus, to land on the Zuiderduintjes, to go fishing for a while, to end at the same place where blue and white become one. That is why you painted it like this, like an afternoon, somewhere, in an apartment block, in those ugly streets of Rotterdam.


I wished not go
Into the foreign land
I knew not
Where to find
The gardens
In its womb
Should I not
Could I but wish
What it looked like
In that point of the summer
Jotted with a brush
Patting fields of flowers
Distant from the houses
The dreams
That I harbored
Since that childhood day
When I saw the land
When I felt the skin
Of the bruised earth
Growing under my feet
Regaling me
With showers of weak light
When will I see the land?
Will I be able to take pleasure in you?
Answer my call!
The land never forsaken
All at my bequest
One whole country for a child
When will I see you again?
When, Netherland?


Literature that is no longer readable
At the expectation
Of faintest love
The desperate agreement
With the laws of the world
Empty the sketchbooks
Ransacked by words of the hand
By movements of the fingertips
A vast field of greenery and flies
Telegrams, without address
Without recipient
By an unknown sender
Too much loyalty
In impossible faces of men
Too much serendipity
To sell for friendship
To expect reward
A silence more forceful
That rustling jolts
All the more forgetful
Swallowed by rivers
Watching over the planes
From the bottom of the waters
The legs bruised not by rocks
But by the soft touch of the fish
The algae
The softest pasture
Fallen into disgrace
In a winter morning
Next to a violin
In the abandonment
Of beauty
A lonely mirror
Trying to catch a glimpse of the woman
In another room of the palace
Imagining the vanity
Of aging gracefully
Brushing the hair
With linens of gold
Praying for innocence
While devouring the flesh
Of a sinful soldier
Or another murderer


A sailor in the mud
Taking shelter from the truth
With yet another bullet
The little men
Made out of paper notes
Beheaded by the child
Unable to understand
The language
Of the poem jotted down
By an English woman
During a farewell afternoon
By the banks of the river
No longer watery of frost
Laden with a corpse
Followed by another
In unison
A new song
Not for anyone dead
But for the mightiest deed
Of our son of man
Of our bullets
Our children
Of bayonets


I am unable to dance to the tune
That smells beneath the earth
That hampers one from death
It is a long deterred muse
The landscape most unlikely
A fear of yet another shipwreck
Sounding aloof but verily
The lighthouse, the rows, the deck

Europe after the Rain...

So far it's been
From within a cave
Crafted with slow deeps
Underneath a stair
During my sleep
I endure visions
Of the mightiest port
The kinder skin of grass
And flowers in the fall
In my dream
The stench of the smoke
Pouring out of the skin
Into the cells of cement
Is transformed into waters
That navigate through the nails
Shun off the call of one's death
I see snails and rows of houses
But I hear only waters
They suffocate in the small islands
Twisted from their own thirst
To love the meadows of sand
The crave for piles of hay
Burning in spectacular yellows
Every scrap of paper, a riviera
Keeping the secrets
Of journeys yet undone
Everything vanishes into plaster
Into the smells of unwashed cloth
Into the distance
Kneeling down before the dreams
Begging for another minute
Of delusion
Of a better world
Or a real port
Where the cave
Is transformed into the light
Where the silence
Becomes louder than the tide
The elbows of the poet
Are visible at dusk
The young flesh bruised by the hours
Of the pen
Wearing the thinness of the lotus
Reaching out
Without dying
And also without falling
For kinder words
For another world

Response to Raphaël

"I want an absolute transformation, however minute, that the encounter with a person of a work of art will change everything" -Susan Sontag

The discovery of a new work of art, the musical piece or the painting, has the primordial quality of throwing us back into a simultaneity of times, usually the return to one's own origin that serves as well the purpose of advancing the nearness, however figurative, of one's own death. In spite of its greatest theoretical ambitions, philosophy has always lagged behind in the much sought-after purity of this experience, insofar as this discipline, as a science, has no immediate access to the eyes and the eyes of the world, death as the ultimate aesthetic experience is vetoed for the philosopher - The Absolute, insofar as it doesn't concern the individual parts, is unable to turn a glimpse on itself, lest it happens all too late and therefore, the philosopher knows no lifetime, in the nauseating madness, by-product of absolute vertigo, the philosopher, even if he has lived a very long life and has a fair amount of memories to recount, realizes that he has no past, as long as he's been a philosopher through the whole of his life. This has plagued not only Gilson, but everyone from Plato to Spinoza to Hegel. For the philosopher, the testimony of art, its quality as an artifact of the world, is preposterously ephemeral and the choices left as few, because in this "stans aeternitatis", the time of the creation of the world and withal, the urgency inherent to life, are as alien to the philosopher as silent the breathe of an evil spell. There's no progress in philosophy, no history of philosophy, no philosophical history or historical philosophy, as long as one hasn't surrendered to the faith that the world is being looked at from the quintessentially future perspective of a day after the advent of catastrophe; when the world as we know, has been helplessly destroyed, its morphology altered and the shape of its permanence, has ultimately passed. Philosophy is a science of death, and this had been apparently very clear to Plato himself who held philosophy happily liable to the charges of being the science of "how to die". In this sense the enmity between philosophy and politics and life, is less than a casual accident, it constitutes the most radical form of homelessness, or in the words of a medieval emperor, "That be world be destroyed, but truth shall prevail". There comes inevitably the Christian question over the use of the world, in this valley of tears, the desert of Egypt through which the People of Israel are ought to cross through the madness of Reed Sea; wouldn't it be better to be at home in the world and yet dispossessed of all possible truth? This curiosity over the world plagued even the pious and sterile Lessing who wrote once, "If God would hold all the truth of the world in one hand and in the other the interminable doubt and thirst over truth and would ask, Lessing, choose one of the two! Truth belongs to thee alone my Lord". Wouldn't it be better to reject truth for the sake of an abode in the world? It's not the eternal truth, it's certainly no truth, but why should we abandon the pleasures of the world for the sake of truth alone?

We're confronted then with broken mirrors everywhere, every work of art manifests itself in the world in a two-fold manner: It constitutes the world-building activity par excellence while at the same time its permanence, the fact that just like the world, it was there before us, it will be there after we part, this fact alone destroys the unity of life, destroys the biological continuity of life, it points toward a sense of transcendence that can no longer be reached, it's perpetually melancholic, an image stolen from consciousness and yet unavailable within the repository of passing worldly artifacts and produce of human labor - necessary for survival of the species, otherwise it couldn't quality for a place of honor among the works of art. Historically, philosophy has demonstrated a certain aversion to consider the works of art, the temporary quality of artistic production was incompatible with metaphysics in the medieval period and in the modern period, unbearable for the utilitarian equation between means and results that has defined philosophy through the whole of the modern period since it is the artist alone the free man, the only individual in the hierarchy of society whose production is not necessary for functional survival and whose life does not depend on production alone. But the fascination about works of art has been as perennial as the enterprise of metaphysics itself, there has been no other source of philosophical imagination that the commentary on the extant works of art from different periods. Fascination and imagination however are not coeval with truthfulness and pleasure as such, as much as deceive, has never been a category of systematic thought unless we are taking for thought the abstract notions of pleasure derived Kant's Critique of synthetic judgments a priori rather than the unmediated and raw experience of art as it was bequeathed to us by the trembling and fear of the learned men of the Renaissance and the Baroque. The human eye of these men of science and virtue and their discovery of different worlds, inside and outside the earth, was radically affected by the infinite diminishing in the stature of Western man; they were only able to pull a survivor's trick - they laughed hysterically, but beneath this laughter hid their infinite tremor, their infinite vertigo as they stood in front of the abyss - "Oh the time is out of joint! Cursed spite, that thou wert borne to set it aright" (Hamlet). If such were in fact the dimensions of the universe, there could be no possible way to find out who we are or what the meaning of life is, for as long as we're alive and of this infinitesimally small world. It might be that this was the transitional period of art between forms and expressions, but yet the fact remained unchanged even at the times of WWII when Romain Rolland wrote in a letter to Stefan Zweig that art brings us consolation as individuals but it is powerless before reality. Nietzsche knew this well as his death loomed close and he only found consolation from his great physical pain as his sister played the piano.

Sweelinck was one of these men, for whom music was not only aesthetic pleasure but the impossible realization that there were no longer safeties in the world, the heraldic awareness that the choice between God and hell was not as paradoxical as we might have thought: It could have been a simple choice between leaving the world as we know it to be lifted up by the arm of the Holiest, or to stay in the world and reject paradise, to stay in the world and as in Kleist, deny the possibility of innocence once we can no longer choose ourselves for the god or the stone, we are barely witnesses. Christian art as such is in principle a little bit unchristian as all art is insofar as the representability of anything, is an immediate call to its ultimate mortality, the suffering of the Cross, the greatest burden ever borne by man was turned into an object of contemplation, into an object of beauty and as such into an object of death if one insists in remaining a Christian. The wolf is at the door, the close of times always at hand, and the struggle with the demon always in the greener grass: The violent force of Sweelinck lies on his similarity with Goethe, in the fact that he always stood at the gates, he looked at the abyss into the eye in a clear morning of the summer when the beauty of its shine was visible at peak of twilight, he saw the fires of hell consuming his soul; yet unlike Goethe he saw the danger, he saw Kleist and Hoelderlin and Nietzsche falling into the abyss, he wiped the sweat from their forehead, tended to their wounds, quenched their thirst with fresher waters, but he did not jump. This is the greatness and the burden of his realization. Unlike the four Protestant agitators that surrender to the endless reciting of a "Deus excelsis gloria", Sweelinck could not kneel down, he was the miracle and the wine but not the saint. His greatest sin: The silence before the Kingdom of Heaven. It was perhaps someone like Sweelinck behind the miracle of the Holy Cecile, the maker of this great impasse, it is the evil spell that he himself did not fall prey to. The great sin of the listener is that the more he listens to the magic, the more he is surrendered to this world with its ugly and endless pathways of graves extending along the grass that grows with the violence of life and wraps everything into a symphony of oblivion, this is perhaps what eternity is, the fact that we can't survive the hour of freedom even by one single hour. The listened kneels down but what comes closer is his death, and not the gates of heaven that are open only to those innocent, only to puppets and to gods. The sublime object is always an unchangeable artifact, that's the secret of its cruelty, that the sublime cannot be sublimated, not even by silence. Those who search for God in Sweelinck, just like in the Christian piety of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, are entirely doomed, because the anxiety is the symptom of traveling toward an impossible destination; Kierkegaard was clear about that: the Christian does not exist YET. The suffocating and toxic air derives not from its eternal rising into the clarity of the skies above, but from the fact that "the Church, that community of God in the future, eternally dissatisfied with the present" (Bloch) is still a descent, the place hasn't changed and if it would, we wouldn't know, because every self-proclaimed Messiah is a false of Messiah - even if the Messiah is a piece of music alone. The miracle is not so much the conversion of the water into wine but as in Rilke the maddening fact that the water is still water and the wine is still wine. The channels of friendship ought to remain open, they assure us to the practice of reality and ultimately define that we are not alone with God in the universe, if the ascent would be immediate, we would no longer need each other, but as the abyss deepens and tightens at the level of the neck to the point of strangling, the other, that is, the friend, is the insurance that there's no insurance for truth as long we we remain committed to the life of this world. There's then a way to circumvent the valley of tears and to be at home: To kneel down with the security that we shall not rise, but that, in order to be accomplished, it needs at least two.

The danger is not to fall, that would be too easy, the danger is to remain at the threshold, looking down, that's in fact, the greatest sin, that's why the aspiration to transformation is the only commodity that can save us not, only the fallen can be saved, the puppets and the gods.