03 April 2006

Another Platonic Problem

Read: “Ainulindalë” (The Music of the Ainur) from The Silmarillion
Click here for fractal pictures of the Music of the Ainur
Listened to: I also listened to Bruckner’s 4th symphony this weekend, without knowing Rosie had.
Oo, psychic.

Yesterday someone prayed in church something about God’s presence or work “in the spiritual realm and in the physical realm.” That struck me so sharply—a smack, a slap, an epiphany—I almost jumped up shouting in the middle of worship. That is another inheritance from Hellenism! Isn’t it? Two problems with a Platonic philosophy are the dead-sign theory of language and the static nature of the afterlife. Tolkien, I believe, rescued writing from the first problem: with his invention of Elvish, he realised that language presupposes a mythology and a history. As he wrote those, he infused the spiritual “realties” of his imaginary world into his imaginary language, thus showing the integral nature of word and belief. C. S. Lewis rescued Christianity from the other problem, that of an eternal stasis in the realm of pure forms, with his idea of a heaven so much more than earthly reality, with “further up and further in,” with the solidity of “the valley of the shadow of life,” and with the expanding rings of worlds-within-worlds.

OK, but this is another problem, and one specifically aimed at the artist. It seems that Christianity has inherited the idea that the spiritual world and the physical world are just that: two different, separate kingdoms. God rules both, and perhaps they exist side-by-side, maybe they even correspond (each item here being a poor copy of another item there, in a one-to-one relationship), but they are separate. I think I have believed that.

But that CANNOT be true since the incarnation!! It was probably never true, but once God united His entire [spiritual] self to a human [material] existence, the two worlds collided in a disastrous way—disastrous in that now they are one. Everything that happens here happens there, and vice-versa. This is the mystery of prayer: God is doing something, and His people are praying about it. Which came first? Which caused the other? Neither: they are the same action. How could I have thought of them as disjunct realities? I breathe: God has caused me to take that breath. I pray: God has given me the heart to move towards Himself. I take the Lord’s Supper: a spiritual presence occurs, not just a symbol of what happened in the past or what might happen in the future. There is a reality there, a conjunction of heaven and earth.

This is what Charles Williams sees so well. He does not subdivide realities into two categories. That’s why his books appear “totally weird.” He is not surprised if divine lightning flashes forth, piercing an evil man as with a thousand red-hot needles and casting him out through walls into the street. Why not? The man committed a spiritual indecency; with spiritual fire will he be destroyed. Hell can act on earth, for it is present in every wrong choice. Heaven can, also, for it is present in each godly decision (since those come from the Transcendent One in the first place). Williams does not hesitate to suggest that divine power might dwell in a cup, a stone, a ring, or a woman, since those objects/persons are simultaneously existent in the two realms. Or the two realms intersect in it/her. Or there are no two realms, but spirit and matter acting in conjunction.

Why should this surprise me? I am a material creature, animated by a soul; or a soul indwelling a body; or a spirit expressing itself through matter; or a soul-body union. I believe that a person cannot exist without both. The figures posed in “Body Worlds” are not people—only their shells, their earth-suits. A soul without a body is as dead as a body without a soul. That is why resurrection is necessary. After I die, I will not be a person until the Resurrected Lord unites me with a new body. And then I will be able to SEE (and feel, taste, hear, smell…and who knows what else!) the glories of a world into which the division is not longer apparent.

So great art is matter arranged in a particular way by a person who has infused his/her soul into that work. It is made of material stuff (paint, wood, paper, canvas, marble, notes, rhythms, words….) and immaterial stuff (observations, perspectives, opinions, ideas, truths….)

Perhaps Blake is right, that here in our bodies we are caught in “the abyss of the five senses.” Maybe “man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”

Or, as Oothoon says in “Visions of the Daughters of Albion”:
They told me that the night & day were all that I could see;
They told me that I had five senses to inclose me up.
And they inclos’d my infinite brain into a narrow circle….

If so, think what an amazing world it will be when those five senses open into a hundred, a thousand, a million, or an infinite number of possible kinds of sensory perception! Or each sense becomes one with all the others, and we see music, hear colors, touch odors, eat noises, drink hues, wear feelings, paint music, dance rainbows, knit scents, ride waves of the color spectrum, feast on symphonies, listen to textures, inhale the whole vast material universe into the lungs of our soul, and exhale epics of eternal experience!!

Great art, then, reveals that unity between two worlds. It shows something more than we can see with our eyes. We listen to Wagner to try to catch the Music of the Ainur that the sea hints (Silmarillion). We look at Turner’s paintings to try to understand the nature of light. We take photographs to try to express something beyond what the landscape itself shows in its “real” context.

Maybe? What do you think? Do I have a logical inconsistency here, that on the one hand I am saying the two worlds are one world, and on the other hand they are two and artist try to reveal one in the other? Or am I trying to say that ineffable things all artists try to say, namely: Look! There it is! Eternity, spirit, myth, heaven, imagination, human soul, the Transcendent, the something-more—I have caught it, and am showing it to you! Look, please look!


Iambic Admonit said...

Here is one of my “Holy Sonnets,” dealing with the idea of a spiritual reality intersecting with the material:


All the beauty hidden in this place
Crams in that stand of chestnut branches, dappled
For disguise in darks and lights the crowd creates
By holding up its million leaves to clap.
These trees themselves are shadows, I suspect,
Cast by the future age, whose nimble thumbs
And fingers shape familiar silhouettes
Of everything that is and is to come.
Are we who see deceived by what seems real
In every sense—beguiled by a touch,
Seduced by music, ravished by the ideal
Intimations landscapes make? And must
The Forms remain just dreams beyond our thoughts?
No: Shadows, real as Substance, cast their own eidos.

N.B.: Here’s some info on “eidos”:

Greek term for what is seen—figure, shape, or form. In the philosophy of Plato, the eidos is the immutable genuine nature of a thing, one of the eternal, transcendent Forms apprehended by human reason {Gk. nouV [nous]}. Aristotle rejected the notion of independently existing Forms and understood them instead as abstract universals. By extension, Husserl used the term "eidetic" for the phenomenological apprehension of essences generally.
Recommended Reading: F. E. Peters, Greek Philosophical Terms: A Historical Lexicon (NYU, 1967)

Iambic Admonit said...

Here’s another poem, about the future unfolding abilities of the senses, that I’m working on in conjunction to this entry. It’s still in progress (actually, isn’t every poem in progress until we die? Paul Valéry said, “I never finish a poem, I just give up.”)


If all I see is shadows, all I feel
mere fog of future solids, all I taste
just after-taste, and all songs only echoes—
what exponential ecstasy awaits!
Imagine: Here, the ocean’s western music
drives me mad; I weep for marble’s whiteness;
and the scent escaping from a rose
seems labyrinths and mist-fronds of delight—
but There! if There, the body’s narrow windows
open out, how much more lasting, sweet,
and sorrow-joyful will a flower be,
its flimsy Type of scent fulfilled; belief
as much more certain as each rock more real;
and my substance-senses one with all that they reveal.

Rosie Perera said...

Re: Bruckner's 4th: Ooh, weird (cue music from "The Twilight Zone"!)

Read: First 22 chapters of Moby Dick (I grew up in Pittsfield, MA, where Melville wrote this book, had been to his house, knew this was one of the greatest American novels, and yet had never read it! Embarrassing!)

Listened to: Scottish Country Dances

Interesting ideas, Sorina. I'm not sure the Incarnation changed the nature of created reality. People and animals and trees and art continued to exist with the same admixture of body and soul as they had before the birth of Christ. (Not sure whether trees have souls, though the Ents would take umbrage at that!) Whatever melding of the spiritual and physical worlds existed from that point on must already have been present from the time of Creation, as God breathed his pneuma (Spirit) into Adam.

Your questions are very much related to the nominalist-realist controversy in medieval theology & philosophy. Nominalism held that "universals" (which refer to concepts or species) have no reality physically or mentally, but are instead mere names. Only individual objects are real. William of Ockham and Peter Abelard were the best known Nominalists. Realism was dominant throughout the Middle Ages and derives from the Platonic philosophy of "forms." It held that universals, also called "ideas," have a real existence because they originate with God. Material objects perceived by people correspond to the universals. Individual things were real if they were part of a divine idea. Thomas Aquinas modified the Realist position to establish a moderate position between Nominalism and Realism. (Most of this paragraph is verbatim from the photocopied handout [called "Church History Manual"] for a course I took at Regent.) See also:
- Problem of universals (Wikipedia)
- The Medieval Problem of Universals (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

I agree with you about the ultimate nature of reality (Hopkins' "The world is charged with the grandeur of God" says it well, as does Elizabeth Barrett Browning: "All of earth is crammed with heaven" [or was that latter Emily Dickinson? The Internet is so unreliable as a source of info sometimes!]) But in practical terms, we do experience reality as two separate realms. We know that God is Spirit, and we cannot see him present with us physically, though we can see evidence of his presence in the world around us. And we know that there is something spiritual in us which departs when we die (Psalm 146:4 "When their spirit departs, they return to the ground....") We believe, through faith, that like Jesus we will be reunited body and soul in the eschaton. I believe we will have a physical existence in heaven, not the disembodied spiritual one that so much popular theology teaches - floating around on clouds and all that (some bad Christian art is probably to blame for the tenacity of these ideas). I'm not sure what to make of the apparent disconnect between spiritual reality and physical reality for the present moment.

Though I couldn't find "Earth is crammed with heaven" in my Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (due either to its not being there, or an inadequate index, if that's not how the poem begins), I did find this little one, which is relevant to our discussion:

Heaven is so far of the Mind
That were the Mind dissolved
The Site of it by Architect
Could not again be proved

'Tis vast as our Capacity
As far as our idea
To Him of adequate desire
No further 'tis, than Here

Re: “Ainulindalë”: In my first year at Regent, I took an inter-disciplinary class in which one group of students chose to do a musical interpretation of “Ainulindalë” for their final project. It was wonderfully creative. Several themes were introduced by the Ainur, but then Melkor tried to ruin everything by introducing a clashing ugly theme. But Ilúvatar wove them all together into a greater composition which included them all and made harmonious music from them. During the finale, those playing the Ainur came around and distributed grapes to all of us in the audience to partake in "communion" with them. It was a very powerful piece that has stuck in my memory since.

Iambic Admonit said...

That quote comes from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's verse novel? blank verse book? modern epic? big huge poem? Aurora Leigh, often called the "female epic."

“Earth's crammed with heaven, / And every common bush afire with God” (Aurora 7.821-22)

It's a fascinating work, full of these references to the dual nature of reality, which she imbibed from Emmanuel Swedenborg.