Revisiting the sacred

Michael Boughn

In Crime and Punishment the soul faces as if for the first time the full implications of the staggering transformations it finds itself implicated in, transformations leading to an exile in unimaginably brutal fact. It’s not, of course, actually the first time, since in some abstracted “timeline” based on a concept of homogenous time it was preceded by Poe’s stories, including “Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter,” and by Moby-Dick. In those American stories the soul also stands as if for the first time before the same terrifying transformations. Unlike Melville, though, or Poe, Dostoevsky turns away in horror from the changes he is witness to—we could call it the death or even the murder of the sacred—attempting to reclaim in his vision of Raskolnikov’s salvation the possibility of a recovery of what was lost within a world going rapidly, as they say, to hell in a hand-basket, or perhaps more to the point, a Market basket.

            Raskolnikov, like Ishmael (but unlike Dupin) faces the horror (or promise as he sees it initially, following Nietzsche) of the possibility of utter freedom rooted in the mind’s claim to dominion over the ground formerly occupied by the sacred and its attendant moralities. Historically it is a possibility tied to the end of feudalism and the rise of market economies, the ascendancy of political theories of democracy, and the invention of the cult of the autonomous individual. All of these developments, part of the new culture we think of as modernity, were grounded on the necessary independence of the mind, the ability of the mind, once free from the shackles of the old authorities, to mould the world to its needs and uses.

            Raskolnikov admittedly takes it to an extreme, but it is an extreme grounded within the range of possibility of the new culture. He can kill or not kill as he sees fit, free of the old restraining moralities that serve only to bind and weaken the free mind as the source of will and action.  Only by going through that experience is he able to arrive at a renewed experience of the sacred. It’s as if Raskolnikov’s dilemma was a kind of liminality, a literal rite of passage, duplicating in a sense the moment at Eleusis, deep in the earth, when the final light was extinguished (ironically, in Raskolnikov’s case, by the “enlightened” individual mind), that must be engaged in order to become something further.

            At Eleusis, the horror of the moment of utter darkness, Walter Otto suggests, was followed by the illumination of a single blade of grass, a vision of the renewal of life out of the very darkness that seemed to have extinguished it. If the killing of the pawnbroker is for Raskolnikov the same moment of utter darkness, the problem with Dostoevsky is that rather than move beyond it, it becomes a retrograde moment of return to an unrevised (but reborn) Christianity, as if the social, cultural, economic and political transformations of the shift to Modernity were reversible, or as if they had nothing to do with the absolute disintegration of what Jurgen Habermas calls substantive reason. It’s a utopian Humpty-Dumpty vision of history in which the King’s men can put Humpty back together again.

            For us, 150 years down the arrow of time on the far cusp of the new millennium in what’s been called our post-modern condition, when the tattered mantel of the sacred has been so thoroughly claimed by the most brutal and pitiless purveyors of multiple modalities of terror—multidenominational killers of spirit and of flesh—such a move seems all but impossible. Today in Toronto, groups of young people organized by one of the wealthiest and historically most brutal organizations in human memory, roam the city cheerfully proclaiming their faith in one man’s claim to represent the word of god, while all around them the tumult of the city noisily proclaims their utter irrelevance.

            How do you reconstitute the plenitude of substantive reason from the fractured institutions our lives are entangled in and defined by? For the Enlightenment thinkers who worked so hard to dismantle the structure that upheld towering hierarchies arched by brutal power, the answer was to perfect a new world of human relations. Equality, fraternity, the pursuit of happiness, and above all, liberty beckoned them toward a new heaven, a heaven on Earth, a social utopia. From them we inherit our world.

            The word sacred is part of that inheritance. Whatever it may have meant at one time, it seems to come up now when people feel something is missing. This is true even when they claim that nothing is missing and that the meaning of the word has never been in doubt. However you feel about it—and it always arouses strong feelings—that fact remains as a starting point. What is missing and what, if anything, should or can be done about it then constitute one possible move, wherever one goes from there. For Dosteovesky it was to be reborn. For Poe, at least in the Dupin stories, it was to ironically celebrate the mind’s power to dispel mystery, embracing the unrealized vision of the philosophes who founded his own nation (though mostly the monstrous shadows of that overwhelmed him). Melville alone turned toward the vastness of the sea, and Ishmael, floating on the coffin.

            The problem with the sacred is that it drags in with it a raft of relations and exclusions, endless hierarchical divisions and judgements, hostilities and brutalities that thrive on its inevitable claim to an authority that is beyond discussion. The children brought here to celebrate something they inaccurately call World Youth Day, blithely and cheerily take up the Church’s ongoing attack on women and homosexuals. This is inevitably, as the Pope himself asserts in his desire to undo the work of Descartes, a discourse grounded in looking back, in attempting to reclaim what Pequod-like has sunk into sea, hoping that we might float it again and reclaim our old place, our old certainty, on it.

            But as decrepit as such nostalgia may be, do we have to fall into the arms of some rearguard Enlightenment quarrel to escape it? Whether directed against the idea that poetry may have some claim or relation to the sacred, or used to attack certain configurations of relation among poets (e.g. the critique of the “acolytes” or “disciples” who supposedly surrounded Charles Olson, the “priest”), such discourses always rise uncritically out of the same old stale arguments. Rather than address what people feel is missing and why they feel that, the polemicists of the anti-sacred raise the old bogeymen and straw dogs—autonomy, liberty, individualism, social perfection—claiming for themselves the authority of something they call the “social” which is identified in a geometry of the imagination as the “horizontal” as opposed to the “vertical.”

      When Auguste Comte invented the social about 200 years ago, he was out to displace the authority of the church and the aristocracy into the hands of a new gang who claimed it (as well as the land and money) as their own on behalf of all “the people”. In the turbulence of the fallout of the French revolution and the echoing peals of Saint-Simon’s Enlightenment thinking, Comte “discovered” that human relations were containable within a quantifiable category subject to positive knowledge, something he called “sociology,” thereby giving rise to a whole new class of priests called “sociologists.” Like the old priests, they are mediators. They measure, explain, appease. Rather than entrails or bird droppings, they read intricate, complex statistical samples, numbers that mean nothing until they have drawn out the tortured significations. The “social programs” they develop are meant to keep those relations, those social relations, from erupting into violence or alienation or some other pathology related to the inability to properly interpret the (statistical) signs.

     No doubt this is a kind of relief for those of us who would be free of that relational world of endless divisions, hostilities and brutalities associated with the purity of the Sacred and its authority. But it has also bequeathed to us social workers, social contracts, social climbers, socialites, social security, social distress, socialism, social diseases, social credit, social sciences, social secretaries, and most damning of all, an entire metaphysics of socially constructed identities. It has also given us a poetry that elevates griping to a metaphysics without in any way augmenting our sense of how the circumstance of its occasion fits with the depth of the world we find ourselves in.

     This “social” / “sacred” distinction echoes through a universe of mutually exclusive contraries that include “horizontal” and “vertical,” “descent” and “ascent,” “process” and “state” and so on, all that binary business we are supposed to choose between. Frequently, this metaphysical fault line extends to the division of language itself into “opaque” and “transparent.” In the attack on the “sacred,” (and the poetry that sees itself operating in relation to that), each of these pairs ends up playing out a well-known role to those familiar with the post-modern analysis of western metaphysics. William Blake, anticipating that analysis by some 200 years, called this particular geometry of the imagination Ulro, and figured it in the image of a man and woman tied together back to back.

     Raskolnikov on his knees in the crossroads in St. Petersburg probably would have had some difficulty with the idea that you can so neatly sever the social from the sacred, since his dilemma arose from precisely such an historical dislocation. He was adrift in the heady rhetoric of the new radical resistance to the new bourgeoisie, both of whom—radical and bourgeois—agreed in their bad marriage on one point—the dismissal of superstition, their new name for the sacred and its attendant moralities. For Raskolnikov, the image of the social bereft of a further depth would forever be contained in the image of the bloody axe buried in the old pawnbroker’s smashed head—her terror and pain discounted in the calculation of the social good and permitted by the loss of a sense of a depth to the world beyond the social. “Arithmetic” he calls it—“for one life, thousands of lives saved.” This, prophetically, became the theory that made possible Stalin and Pol Pot, Hitler and Pinochet. It defined the terrific horror that stalked the last century and continues to haunt this new one.

     Ishmael, facing the same dilemma, was able to find a different way forward—or if not forward, at least out, as in out of the sinking ship and into the deep blue sea. Having come to understand the world as essentially creative, Ishmael saw the Judeo-Christian tradition that dominated American thinking as doomed by its imagination of an initial act of creation that then ended, condemning the world to a narrative closure bounded by creation and apocalypse. Committed to a sense of creation that was eternally active, he found himself in a world truly without end beyond the apocalypse that defined a metaphysics of identity and claimed those like Ahab who committed themselves to it.

     In the best tradition of Jewish language mysticism, Ishmael located his self in a language that was conceived as neither transparent nor opaque, but as something beyond that:

     Their root [that is, that of language and things] is in a name, for the letters are like branches, which appear in the manner of flickering flames, which are mobile, and nevertheless linked to the coal, and in the manner of the leaves of the tree, its boughs and branches, whose root is always in the tree . . . and all the debharim become form and all the forms proceed only from the one name, just as the branch comes from the root.

     The issue here is neither representation nor the lack of it—both of which tie us up in that old knot of binary exclusiveness—but something further and deeper. Language in itself is creative, and part of that creativity is the potential for meaning or representation—for form, for order, which is not to say that it is not also destructive, nonsensical, and opaque. At a certain depth, in any case, order brings us face to face with the ordinary—if we take the words as words.

     Following Ishmael’s turn, we find ourselves in a new world, which is a kind of play on the notion that America has always entertained about itself. We could call it a new ordinary. What’s new here, however, must be understood in terms of Ishmael’s view from the coffin after the Pequod disappears into the depths of the sea. It’s not that he faces nothing, it’s just that the immensity and depth that he floats upon requires a new mode of understanding and address.

     In a keynote speech to a conference on poetry and the sacred, Charles Bernstein, citing Simone Weil, suggests that we must make a choice between ascent and descent: “Not something to rise up to,” he writes in “Poetry and/or the Sacred,” “but something in which to descend, the gravity Simone Weil talks about that is a condition for grace.” His point is to renounce the metaphysics that traditionally has denied the earth and its bodies in its affirmation of some beyond that is better or more real. But it’s a strange citation for Bernstein to use since Weil’s piece—a short collection of aphoristic observations in a book called Gravity and Grace—actually identifies gravity with an ascetic rejection of the world as “base” and calls on her readers to use it to ascend into a Platonic realm of light.

     But ascent or descent, it makes no difference, it’s all of a piece—part of the same system of decaying and decrepit contraries that fails to address even the nature of he gravity of the world we find ourselves in. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the 17th scientific sense of gravity as an invisible universal force that holds us to the earth. In and of itself, it’s actually a site of astonishing mystery, the one universal force that resists integration into a unified field theory thereby maintaining the implacable refusal of the world to resolve itself into some totalizing human understanding. It not only holds us in our place; it puts us in our place as well. But the weightiness of gravitas precedes that. And with it, the inevitable evocation of grave through the sheer common weightiness of the earth if not through any etymological link.

     Grave, grief, grace. We’re dealing here, after all, with the dark splendour that beckons to us all, a splendour both weighty and deep. And the gratitude grace hauls along does not seem out of place. Weil, the self-hating ex-Jew turned neo-Platonic Catholic wanted us to reject the baseness of the earth and the gravity that holds us here, turning its downward pull into an upward movement that she called grace. But there are ways to honour these realities without stuffing them into a yo-yo metaphysics. Like particles and waves, Jack Spicer said. The Sanskrit root of grace, gir, refers to a song of praise (rising). How can we conceive of that beyond the gravitas that gives us weightiness and holds us to the weight of the earth clattering on our coffin. We are tangled here in the matter of vision as it weaves and reweaves the world in shifting configurations of meaning that always just escape our desire to contain them.

This is not irrelevant to the question of poetry. What’s at stake here seems so much more interesting than an Aristotelian choice between ‘a’ and ‘not a’, between a meagre concept of the sacred and an equally meagre concept of the social meant to negate it. Especially now, looking back on the final 300 years of the last millennium, and the horrors that the invention of the social, following in the footsteps of the old metaphysics it replaced, committed upon the body of the earth and the lives of those who dwell there.

Turning into what Robin Blaser calls that astonishment—that depth of the world, its ever surprising glimpses of incommensurable excess—embracing it as a challenge that poetry, of all the forms of our language, is most able to address, to register, we are finally brought face to face with our responsibility, which, as Robert Duncan had it so clearly, is no more than our ability to respond to the world’s furtherness. Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit in their book on Caravaggio suggest that that further is a relational habit, and that the role of the artist, by making visible the subject’s compositional activity in the world, is to reconfigure (or confirm) those (new) relational habits within the world. Biologist Rupert Sheldrake calls it morphic resonance.

Perhaps that’s a rather grand, even aggrandizing, idea. But what’s the alternative? A poetry of perpetual whining about the eternal flaws and inequities of the social world? An utter abrogation of yet to be imagined constellations of beauty and truth to an historically shackled sense of justice? Pound proposed that artists are the antennae of the race. Bersani and Dutoit confirm that idea in the figure of Caravaggio who embodies in his work “the suspicion fatal to the procedures and confidence of philosophy: the suspicion that truth cannot be the object of knowledge, that it cannot be theorized.” Which is not to say that it can’t be painted, or even written, in so far as art, like the world, will always exceed the ability of others to theorize it. Looking out on the immense, unbounded sea from the bobbing coffin carved by hand with magical, sacred, storied images thrown up by the human imagination, such an undertaking seems unspeakably important, whatever the risk.