Pages

01 March 2006

The Neo-Platonic Problem

Caveat lector: this is going to be really long and esoteric! If you don’t have time to read it, skip to the end!
By the way, go Augustine!! Fantastic segue, Rosie.
Yes, I confess. I am an “Inklings”-style Christian Neo Platonist. I do believe that all we see here is but a shadowy antitype of its perfect type or Form, which will be revealed in the new Heavens and the new Earth. Everything we see here will be fulfilled. There seems to be some Biblical evidence for this theory. The strongest is in the book of Hebrews. That author knew his Republic! Hebrews 8:1-5 (NASB) reads:
Now the main point in what has been said is this: we have such a high priest, who has taken His seat at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a minister in the sanctuary, and in the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, not man. For every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices; hence it is necessary that this high priest also have something to offer. Now if He were on earth, He would not be a priest at all, since there are those who offer the gifts according to the Law; who serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things, just as Moses was warned by God when he was about to erect the tabernacle; for, “See,” He says, “that you make all things according to the pattern which was shown you on the mountain.” (emphasis mine.)
The earthly priests served in a tabernacle which was a shadow and a copy of the tabernacle in heaven! Wow. Perhaps some of you Greek scholars could tell me if the same words for “shadow” and “copy” are used in Hebrews and in Plato? But think about it: it seems that God gave Moses basically a blueprint of a tabernacle that existed in Heaven, and Moses built the best copy he possibly could under terrestrial conditions with mortal artists and finite materials. Then, I guess, when we get to Heaven we’ll see the real one? And just as the old men wept to see Zerubbabel’s temple, poor copy as it was of Solomon’s, so we will rejoice to see the original of which everything here is but a poor imitation!
And it’s a beautiful idea. We will become what we will be, in full perfection. Every color will be more vibrant, every sound more resonant, every taste more vivid. More than this: I imagine we will be able to see the entire spectrum of colors, experiencing those far beyond our 10% current range. We’ll be able to hear the entire spectrum of sound, above a dog’s whistle and below an earthquake rumble. We’ll be able to distinguish textures and temperatures more subtle than we even know exist. More still than this! Perhaps, perhaps we’ll be able to see sound, hear colors, taste music, paint with words. Perhaps synesthesia is a bit of what is to come. In short, I would not be one bit surprised to get to Heaven and find it to be what Lewis described in The Great Divorce and The Last Battle. Or at least, those seem apt descriptions of the Valley of the Shadow of Life: who knows what “Deep Heaven” may contain?
But such a view might be limited. Why should I hold heaven—the final infinite, the beginning of forever, the unending landscape, the eternal timeline—to the standard of the Shadowlands? Why should what’s there be simply what’s here, only better? Hum. So, one spanner in the works of my philosophy.
I have tried to adapt Lewis’s concept, and fix some of the theological and eschatological inconsistencies, by putting the World of Forms into the future. I decided several months ago that I did not think that these Forms exist right now in any Ideal Realm or World of Pure Forms, unless that resides in the Mind of God. Plato’s is in the Past, Present, and Future, eternal in all 4-D directions, if I’m not mistaken. So, to Christianize mine, I’ve put it into a time after Christ returns. Yes, yes, of course I realize God is outside time, etc., etc., and maybe this terminology does not apply. And that my only proof-text seems to say it does exist now. But by having Perfection exist in an already-not yet realm, I thought I had freed it up as an arena for art. Here’s how. I’m going to take a long tangent to say how.
The contemporary Christian poet Scott Cairns has written an excellent article entitled “Elemental Confusion: Towards a Sacramental Poetics.” In this profound and challenging article (April 2005 [in progress]), Mr. Cairns contests that the primary reason for the failure of contemporary American verse (especially, but not exclusively, Christian poetry), is that the poem has become merely “a document of prior experience.” The poem must not be a description of a past moment, it must be a moment itself—an epiphany, a revelation, a creation (8). Art, then, to take Tolkien’s word, is not only itself sub-creation, but a catalyst of further sub-creation, or sub-sub-creation, or meta-sub-creation? The “Sacramental” in his title weaves together the theology Communion with an aesthetic of poetry. Firstly, he gently exposes what he sees as the shortcomings of some denominations who strip the elements down to mere reminders. This, he says, is like poetry which only commemorates a past event and does nothing in itself. It is a kind of theological and poetic poverty, as he sees it. Then he presents a eucharistic view of communion, in which participants in some way or other take Christ into their mouths each time they partake of those elements. This, according to Cairns, is how poetry should work: it must contain a living, present, moment: a power, a presence. His definition of “the poetic” is sublime—and I do not use that word lightly—“the presence and activity of inexhaustible, indeterminate enormity apprehended in a discreet space” (4). That beautiful, spiritual, dangerous comprehension will resonate in me for a long time hence.
This view of poetics is rooted in a metaphysics of language: what is a word? What does it signify? What can it do? Cairns lays out a subtle distinction between a paralyzing, shallow, enervating belief that words are merely signs, meaningless noises, versus a rejuvenating, regenerating, generative faith that words are something more (7). He supports this claim with a brilliant discussion contrasting the ways in which the Greeks used their words for “word” with how the Apostle John used Logos. I will quote at some length here.
When the evangelist and theologian, Saint John, uttered Logos as his word for Word, he was making what I suspect to be a very Jewish point with a very Greek gesture. Until that moment, logos was generally consigned to the transcendent realm of Platonic Ideas, the realm of Real Things, of which the apparent world was supposed to be only a shadow. When Saint John wrested Logos from the ether and placed it in the muck among us, he was articulating a collision of realms, a collision whose concurrently disruptive and generative powers Christians have all but forgotten…. the neo-Platonic notion of the written word assumes it to be a name merely, it is, in practice, perceived as a sorry substitute for the spoken word, which is itself a sorry substitute for the thought, which is a sorry substitute for the very distant Idea—that objective reality to which we have no real access…. (7-8)

Therefore, not only are these two views of words different, they illustrate the fundamental contrast of two entire worldviews. Athens and Jerusalem are eternally separated in Mr. Cairns’s theology and aesthetics.
And his aesthetics bring us back to my problem. He states, quite unequivocally: “For the belated poet—the belated writer of any genre, really—the neo-Platonic model can be as crippling as it is meager.” (10) Wham. Why? Because (Mr. Cairns believes) it reduces poetry to the thin, whining, cheap task of retelling stuff that was much better in actual experience than it can ever be in these noise-symbols put together in some order to try to evoke a shadowy picture of the Thing Itself. It cripples the poet, too, because s/he always carries the burden that past poets were closer to the original and therefore better, and that s/he will always limp along with a weaker voice than theirs.
I say, Not so. Why not? Because the Christian neo-Platonism that C. S. Lewis et al passed along to the modern believer is not such a weak thing. Mediated as it was by a Sacramental theology, displayed as it is in dazzling prose, it is a poetic force to be reckoned with. In the Chronicles of Narnia, the Space Trilogy, Till We Have Faces, Tolkien’s fantasy series, Charles Williams’s The Place of the Lion, and so on, I certainly perceive “the presence and activity of inexhaustible, indeterminate enormity apprehended in a discreet space.” The space is, granted, a much larger space that that of, say, Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur,” Herbert’s “Love Unknown,” or Luci Shaw’s “M. C. Escher’s Three Worlds.” But the unabashedly neo-Platonic works of the Inklings can never be accused of being constructed of prior, “subsequent,” or “belated” (9); they are “occasion[s] of ongoing, generative agency” (4). How is this possible?
I think it must be because of the essential transformation neo-Platonism made in coming into the modern Christian era. It seems to have been wrested from a backward-looking, secondary position to a forward-looking, primary status. The object of a Christian Platonism is not a prior world of forms, nor even a present and inaccessible place of Real Things, but a moving towards and even-increasing apprehension of a future state of perfection. The eidos ­does not exist yet. Perhaps it did exist, in some more tenuous sense, in the mind of God before creation. But now it is always beginning to be created, day by day, on this fallen earth and in the lives of the saved.
The physical world is not a shadow, but a foreshadow. It prefigures what is to come in the new heavens and the new earth. The process of sanctification could perhaps be called an unshadowing (oo! Maybe that’s the right title for my haiku!), or a gradual lifting of the veil to reveal the hidden perfection. Every moment is a real moment, a true moment, and the more true the more of redemption reality it reveals. Thus a poem written now is more true, more right, more poetic if it resonates with both the current reality of justification and the future truth of glorification. We live in the woods between the worlds, and our verses are made here too. We wait with our faith unconsummated. Words have meaning, but they are more the musical sounds leading us on to hear the music of the heavenly spheres than complete symphonies in themselves. People, objects, and events hold in themselves the seeds of what they will bloom into. The most true poem is that which most fully lifts the veil that hangs between Now and What God has prepared for those who love Him.
And, if anyone is still interested enough to keep reading! this brings me back around to sacrament. In this view, the rite of communion is three-fold. First, it is a remembrance of a past event, yes. Christ said, “Do this in remembrance of Me.” Third, it is a looking forward to a future event: the wedding supper of the Lamb, when all will be fulfilled and all will be revealed. But secondly, in the Now, it is a real spiritual presence. Not a real physical presence any more than Heaven is on Earth at this moment. But an actual communion with Christ Himself, crucified and resurrected, and a communion with each other—all the body of believers in Christ everywhere and everywhen. It is a moment of transcendence, but transcendence brought down and close: perhaps an instant of “the presence and activity of inexhaustible, indeterminate enormity apprehended in a discreet space” and a particular time. With this three-fold vision, the poet can wait patiently for the consummation of love and art and simultaneously embrace Mr. Cairns’s invaluable advice to write dynamic, living moments of communication, embodiment, correspondences, and meta-sub-creation. As his article closes, let the poet create “the new made thing—bearing the mark of the hand that shapes it, bearing the traces of its origins, and bearing from this collaboration of past and presence a possible next moment, a future” (14), because the future is in the very words.
So, that’s a whole lot of blah blah blah. What do you all think? Is it possible to be a neo-Platonist and a great poet? Or does Platonism suck the life out of words and make them mere dry dusty signs?

11 comments:

Rosie Perera said...

Wow! Too long a post for me to comment on all of it adequately. Just wanted to say, though, in defense of Scott Cairns, that when he talks about the "belated poet" being cripped by the neo-Platonic model, he has in mind the bland type of poem that merely retells a past experience, and doesn't create anything new. What you are describing later in your post is, I think, a different kind of neo-Platonism (a neo-neo-Platonism?) than that which is believed to have influenced early Christianity. I think the "Inklings" style neo-Platonism is probably closer to what you're describing, and I think Cairns would probably not be as opposed to that as he appears to be in his article. Though we'd have to invite him to comment here to really find out what he thinks! I wonder if I could entice him... :-)

Mehitchcock said...

There's almost a case for a neo-Platonist to be a BETTER poet than someone form another school of thought.
If this world is entirely just shadow, a copy, a premonition, or anything else than real and permanent, then, your poems about the world carry no less weight than the world itself.
Other schools of thought are up against the broad wide world.
But Neo-Platonists are using their words to access the ideal form of the world, just as the world itself reflects it's ideal form in the language of science.
So, the pressure's off for any Neo-Platonists out there. Your poetry is just a smoky outline of truth, but it's as real as the very world you live in and sometimes just as vibrant.

Iambic Admonit said...

And here's possibly the best defense of the whole shebang:
The Place of the Lion by Charles Williams. Wow is not strong enough.

Mehitchcock said...

Is that the one where someone asks him the meaning of it and he read the whole thing?

Iambic Admonit said...

Nope, it's not that one, and I can't remember where that excellent episode occurs. Anyone?

The Place of the Lion is a novel, sort of a spiritual thrilled, in which the Platonic Ideas basically invade the earth and start pulling it back into their realm, which has the unfortunate effect of destroying materiality in the process. One man must take up his Adamic nature to command the Forms back and close the void--bringing about his sweetheart's and best friend's conversions along the way. Full of fantastic (literally) scenes with beasts, fire, St. Anselm walking in a bog, a huge chasm in somebody's living room, and other unlikely terrors and beauties. Do read it!

Rosie Perera said...

Oh, I know the episode you're talking about, too. I thought it was a piece of music, though. Can't remember what instrument it was for, but after the composer finished playing it, someone asked "What does it mean?" and he simply played the piece over again. Or was it a poet reading a poem?

I didn't like The Place of the Lion when I first read it, because it was so "weird," but it has grown on me in hearing about it more and more since then, and I know it deserves a second read. I'd already read Williams' Descent Into Hell previously, and really didn't like that. Williams is such an important author, though, so influential on Lewis and others, so I want to like him.

Iambic Admonit said...

I was pretty sure it was a playwright reading his play over again! We need to track this down....

And Williams's works are definitely weird. Totally weird. Beyond imaginative! But admirable in every detail. Rosie, do you know exactly what you didn't like about Descent into Hell? The Doctrine of Substitution was amazing--the idea that someone can take on someone else's pain, and the original sufferer no longer feels it. A strange idea, and possibly heterodox, but certainly a stimulating intellectualy concept. The doppleganger and succubus were the products of nightmares, but justly so, I thought. So, what didn't you like? ...love to hear.

Mehitchcock said...

I looked in my notes.
Rightly or wrongly, I have Charles Williams asked about Descent Into Hell, stammering, and then reading the play aloud.
But it was about five years ago and you were speaking rapidly, so I got it all muddled with what you were saying about Place of the Lion.
The only thing I can be sure of is the word "stammering."

Rosie Perera said...

It was the weirdness of it that I didn't like. I have a hard time getting into literature dominated by the grotesque or macabre or bizarre. Those images repulse me. I can't understand parts (like what was the whole attempted suicide thing in chapter 2 about?) Maybe it's just that I'm uneducated in this genre and if I read more of it, that aspect of it will not bother me so much and I'll be able to see and appreciate the strengths better. I did find the concept of substitution intriguing.

Iambic Admonit said...

Michael! My apologies, and my congrats. It is Descent into Hell! Although we all had the details a little off, you were the closest. It's a playwright in the book, who, asked what his play is about, reads it again. I'll put in the passage. Thanks!!!

Iambic Admonit said...

"There was a story, invented by himself, that The Times had once sent a representative to ask for explanations about a new play, and that Stanhope, in his efforts to explain it, had found after four hours that he had only succeeded in reading it completely through aloud...."
Descent into Hell, p. 15