One chisel stroke, and the thread ends. The bobbin unwinds endlessly; but always, one day, there is a cut. The thread, however white it is, knows nothing of the cut to come.
The thread only knows that it is spinning, that it is following its thread. Cotton or chitin, it spins. For what? It does not know.
It spins, and as long as it spins, it is only thread.
What can a thread of wool or silk understand about a blade of steel ? Or to the soul of a knife? Or to the spirit of the razor?
Thread is thread. Infinitely thread. The length is on its side, he believes. What can an horizontal thread comprehend about a perpendicular blade?
Even a very long thread has an end. Comes the cut, the stroke. The end of the continuous, the condition of appearance.
Thought follows her thread; straight, sinuous, zigzagging, she follows this thread, or that other, she weaves her web. Does the blade think about the end? Made of various threads, how would she think what is not made of thread? Can the thread think about the thickness of the carpet, its surface, its pattern, or the cat that sleeps on it?
The thought following her thread is quite assured, from premises to inductions. She does not yet think about what is expecting her, maybe, what is beyond her, – the cut, or the knot.
The birth of the cut, at the end of the thread.
And the cut is also of a wire, of steel. Sharp wire, destined to cut, not to bind. Carrot, or carotid, the wire cuts. The blade cuts the soul’s core.
The Spinner, Clotho, weaves the thread of life. Lachesis unwinds it. Atropos cuts it. O fates cut short!
What was it that Empedocles did refuse to reveal? Why didn’t he tell what he was « forbidden to say »? What was he afraid of, – this famous sage from Agrigento, this statesman, this gyrovague shaman and prophet? Why this pusillanimity on the part of someone who, according to legend, was not afraid to end up throwing himself alive into the furnace of Etna?
« I ask only what ephemeral humans are allowed to hear. Take over the reins of the chariot under the auspices of Piety. The desire for the brilliant flowers of glory, which I could gather from mortals, will not make me say what is forbidden… Have courage and climb the summits of science; consider with all your strength the manifest side of everything, but do not believe in your eyes more than in your ears.”i
Empedocles encourages us to « climb the summits of science » …
The Greek original text says: καὶ τὸτε δὴ σοφίης ἐπ’ ἄίκροισι θοάζειν, that translates literally: « to impetuously climb to the summits (ἐπ’ ἄίκροισι, ep’aikroisi) of wisdom (σοφίης sophias) ».
But what are really these « summits of wisdom »? Why this plural form? Shouldn’t there be just one and only one « summit of wisdom », in the proximity of the highest divinity?
In another fragment, Empedocles speaks again of « summits », using another Greek word, κορυφή, koruphe, which also means « summit, top »:
John Burnet and Auguste Reymond translated (in French):
« Marchant de sommet en sommet,
ne pas parcourir un sentier seulement jusqu’à la fin… »iv i.e.:
« Walking from summit to summit,
not to walk a path only to the end…”
Paul Tannery adopted another interpretation, translating Κορυφὰς as « beginnings »:
« Rattachant toujours différemment de nouveaux débuts de mes paroles,
et ne suivant pas dans mon discours une route unique… »v
« Always attaching new and different beginnings to my words,
and not following in my speech a single road…”
I wonder: does the apparent obscurity of this fragment justify so wide differences in its interpretation?
We are indeed invited to consider, to dig, to deepen the matter.
According to the Bailly Greek dictionary, κορυφή (koruphe), means « summit« , figuratively, the « zenith » (speaking of the sun), and metaphorically: « crowning« , or « completion« .
Chantraine’s etymological dictionary notes other, more abstract nuances of meaning for κορυφή : « the sum, the essential, the best« . The related verb, κορυφῶ koruphô, somewhat clarifies the range of meanings: « to complete, to accomplish; to rise, to lift, to inflate« .
The Liddell-Scott dictionary gives a quite complete review of possible meanings of κορυφή: « head, top; crown, top of the head [of a man or god], peak of a mountain, summit, top, the zenith; apex of a cone,extremity, tip; and metaphorically: the sum [of all his words], the true sense [of legends]; height, excellence of .., i.e. the choicest, best. »
Liddell-Scott also proposes this rather down-to earth and matter-of-fact interpretation of the fragment 24: « springing from peak to peak« , i.e. « treating a subject disconnectedly ».
But as we see, the word κορυφή may apply to human, geological, tectonic, solar or rhetorical issues…
What is be the right interpretation of κορυφή and the ‘movement’ it implies, for the fragment 24 of Empedocles?
Etymologically and originally, the word κορυφή relates to κόρυς, « helmet« . Chantraine notes incidentally that the toponym « Corinth » (Κόρινθος) also relates to this same etymology.
The primary meaning of κορυφή, therefore, has nothing to do with mountains or peaks. It refers etymologically to the « summit » of the body, the « head ». More precisely, it refers to the head when « helmeted », – the head of a man or a woman (or a God) equipped as a warrior. This etymology is well in accordance with the long, mythological memory of the Greeks. Pythagorasvi famously said that Athena was « begotten », all-armed, with her helmet, « from the head » of Zeus, in Greek: κορυφἆ-γενής (korupha-genes).
If we admit that the wise and deep Empedocles did not use metaphors lightly, in one of his most celebrated fragments, we may infer that the « summits », here, are not just mineral mountains that one would jump over, or subjects of conversation, which one would want to spring from.
In a Greek, philosophical context, the « summit » may well be understood as a metaphor for the « head of Zeus », the head of the Most High God. Since a plural is used (Κορυφὰς, ‘summits’), one may also assume that it is an allusion to another Godhead, that of the divine « Wisdom » (a.k.a. Athena), who was born from Zeus’ « head ».
Another important word in fragment 24 is the verb προσάπτω, prosapto.
Bollack translates this verb as « to join, » Burnet as « to walk, » Tannery as « to attach”, Liddell-Scott as « to spring »…
How diverse these scholars’ interpretations!… Joining the summits one to the other… Walking from summit to summit… Attaching new beginnings to a narration… Springing from peak to peak, as for changing subjects…
In my view, all these learned translations are either too literal or too metaphorical. And unsatisfactory.
It seems to me necessary to seek something else, more related to the crux of the philosophical matter, something related to a figurative « God Head », or a « Godhead »… The word koruphe refers metaphorically to something ‘extreme’, — also deemed the ‘best’ and the ‘essential’. The Heads (koruphas) could well allude to the two main Greek Godheads, — the Most High God (Zeus) and his divine Wisdom (Athena).
More precisely, I think the fragment may point to the decisive moment when Zeus begets his own Wisdom, springing from his head, all armed….
The verb προσάπτω has several meanings, which can guide our search: « to procure, to give; to attach oneself to; to join; to touch, to graze » (Bailly).
Based on these meanings, I propose this translation of the first line of fragment 24:
« Joining the [God] Heads, one to the other ».
The second verb used in fragment 24 (line 2) is τελέειν, teleein: « To accomplish, to perform, to realize; to cause, to produce, to procure; to complete, to finish; to pay; (and, in a religious context) to bring to perfection, to perform the ceremony of initiation, to initiate into the mysteries (of Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom) » (Bailly).
Could the great Empedocles have been satisfied with just a banal idea such as « not following a single road », or « not following a path to the end », or even, in a more contorted way, something about « not saying a single path of words »?
I don’t think so. Neither Bollack, Burnet, nor Tannery seem, in their translations, to have imagined and even less captured a potential mystical or transcendent meaning.
I think, though, that there might lie the gist of this Fragment.
Let’s remember that Empedocles was a very original, very devout and quite deviant Pythagorean. He was also influenced by the Orphism then in full bloom in Agrigento .
This is why I prefer to believe that neither the ‘road’, nor the ‘path’ quoted in the Fragment 24, are thought to be ‘unique’.
For a thinker like Empedocles, there must be undoubtedly otherways, not just a ‘single path’…
The verb τελέειν also has, in fact, meanings oriented towards the mystical heights, such as: « to attain perfection, to accomplish initiation, to initiate to the mysteries (of divine Wisdom) ».
As for the word μύθων (the genitive of mythos), used in line 2 of Fragment 24, , it may mean « word, speech », but originally it meant: « legend, fable, myth ».
Hence this alternative translation of μύθων μὴ τελέειν ἀτραπὸν μίαν (mython mè teleein atrapon mian) :
« Not to be initiated in the one way of the myths »…
Here, it is quite ironic to recall that there was precisely no shortage of myths and legends about Empedocles… He was said to have been taken up directly to heaven by the Gods (his « ascension »), shortly after he had successfully called back to life a dead woman named Panthea (incidentally, this name means « All God »), as Diogenes of Laërtius reportedvii.
Five centuries B.C., Empedocles resurrected “Panthea” (« All God »), and shortly afterwards he ‘ascended’ to Heaven.
One can then assume that the Fragment 24 was in fact quite premonitory, revealing in advance the nature of Empedocles’ vision, the essence of his personal wisdom.
The Fragment 24 announces an alternative to the traditional « way of initiation » by the myths:
« Joining the [God] Heads, one to the other,
Not to be initiated in the only way of the myths. »
Empedocles did not seem to believe that the myths of his time implied a unique way to initiation. There was maybe another « way » to initiation: « joining the Most High Godhead and his Wisdom …
Milk is like the soul, says one Upaniṣad.i How come?
In milk, butter is hidden… As in potency… It must be churned and it appears.
In the soul, knowledge also is hidden… As in potency… When the spirit searches, it increases its strength, makes it grow, and knowledge comes.
Another metaphor: from two sticks rubbed together, fire springs forth. From the soul and the spirit rubbing together, comes the Brahman.
The word Brahman (ब्रह्मन्) is neutral. It designates a principle: « growth, increase, strengthening ». It comes from the verbal root BṚH- , to strengthen, to increase, to augment, to enlarge.
In the Bhagavad-Gītā, the Lord defines Brahman as his own Self:
« The universe is entirely pervaded by Me, invisible, formless. All beings are in Me, but nothing that is created is in Me, and I am not in them. Behold My supernatural power! I sustain all beings. I am everywhere present. I remain the source of all creation. Just as in space the power of the wind is established, and everywhere its breath, in Me stand all beings. »ii
The Lord, transcendent, descends incognito to earth, and He does not mince His words:
« The fools denigrate Me when in human form I come down to this world. They know nothing of my spiritual, absolute nature, nor of my supremacy. Ignorant, they go astray. They believe in demons, not in Me. Vain are their hopes, vain are their interests, vain are their aspirations, vain is their knowledge. « iii
Neither fools nor vain, are the « great souls », the mahatmah.
« Those who are ignorant of ignorance, the mahatmah, are under the protection of the divine nature. Knowing Me as God, the Supreme, original, inexhaustible Person, they absorb themselves, they devote themselves. Unceasingly singing my glory, they prostrate themselves before Me. Determined in their effort, these spirits, these magnanimous souls love Me.” iv
What happens then?
« Those who know, look at me: I am the Unique Being. They see Me in the multitude of beings and things; My form is in the universe.”v
If the Self is the Whole, it is also in each one of the forms in it, in their infinite variety, their total sum, and their common nature.
« But it is I who am the rite and the sacrifice, the oblation to the ancestors, the grass and the mantra. I am the butter and the fire, and the offering. Of this universe, I am the father, the mother, the support and the grandfather, I am the object of knowledge, the purifier and the syllable OM. I am also the Rig, the Sâma and the Yajur. I am the goal, the support, the teacher, the witness, the abode, the refuge and the dearest friend. I am the creation and the annihilation, the basis of all things, the resting place and the eternal seed. I am heat, rain and drought, I am immortality and death personified. Being and non-being, both are in Me, O Arjuna.”vi
But the Veda itself is not enough, nor the rites. The most important thing is yet to attain knowledge, the only necessary knowledge. Where is it hidden?
« It is indirectly that they worship Me, the men who study the Vedas and drink soma, looking for delicious heavens. They are reborn on the planet of Indra, where they enjoy the pleasures of the devas. When they have enjoyed these celestial pleasures, when their merits have been exhausted, they return to this mortal Earth. A fragile happiness, such is the only fruit they reap, after having followed the principles of the Vedas. But those who worship Me with devotion, meditating on My absolute Form, I fill their lacks and preserve what they are. Every oblation that man with faith sacrifices to the devas is destined for Me alone, O son of Kunti. For I am the sole beneficiary and the sole object of the sacrifice. Those who ignore My true, absolute nature, fall back. Those who worship the Devas will be reborn among the Devas, among the ghosts and other spirits those who live in their worship, among the ancestors the worshippers of the ancestors: likewise, those who are devoted to Me will live with Me.”vii
Following that logic, let’s wonder: from all the « whited sepulchres » of the world, what will really be reborn? New whited, sepulchral worlds? New whited, sepulchral galaxies?
The poet said: « the Milky Way, – luminous sister of the white streams of Chanaan, and of the white bodies of the lovers ».viii
But it seems to me that the Milky Way, with all its grandeur, has less milk and less light than one living soul… As for the streams of Chanaan and the bodies of the lovers, that’s still an open discussion, to compare their ´milk´ to the soul.
There are cultures that value prose, argument, dialectics, in the search for truth. Others praise the hymn, the psalm, the enigma. Some have pushed far the love of wisdom, or maieutic. Others have preferred prophecy or mystery.
The ways forward are multiple. Variations are legion.
Hard climates, short summers, open landscapes, undoubtedly influence the view, life, and everything else. Scattered archipelagos, high valleys, alluvial plains, tawny deserts, wet basins, all these eclectic places hardly resemble each other. They have had, in their time, in their turn, respective affinities, sudden impulses, for thoughts coming from elsewhere, or born within them. Greece has its light. On the Indus flows a heavy and sweet air. The Nile is not the Oxus. The Rhine is not the Tigris.
Each people has their own way of seeing the sea and the stars, of following the sun and the course of the mountains, of telling the fire and the milk, the cow and the night.
Their languages sometimes bear witness to this, beyond the centuries.
Images, which have become seemingly banal, yesterday founded grandiose metaphors, and for millennia have nourished original intuitions. The arid stone of the desert gave birth to a mineral monotheism. The laughing myriads of the sea waves are of a more pantheistic nature – they diffract the solar unit abundantly into billions of labile shards.
One people alone does not create the idea of the divine; the climate also exudes it, the landscape cherishes it, and the language welcomes it.
Besides, the One has too many names. Prajāpati, El, Adonaï, Eloh, Baal, Elion, El Shaddaï, YHVH, Deus, Allah.
The Elohim themselves testify that the One hides in the plural …
All these names are one. These so many names all say that the One is, but they are very many to proclaim it.
It is inferred that all these names and even the number “one” are but veils.
One, one, one, … One, only one, not two, not three, not a thousand or billions.
How could the One rub shoulders with the Two? Or engender the Three? Or breathe the Infinite?
No, no, no. One, One, One…
Only One, there is only the One!
One is one. The Divine is infinite. How to limit the infinite by the One? Idle question. The world is larger than all the deserts, deeper than all the cosmos: no matter the quarrels of hackneyed words…
There, for millennia, towards the Indus, beyond the Oxus, ancient peoples saw the Divine everywhere they looked. They drank it with their eyes, when the light set its dazzling wing, and offered this very light as a sacrifice.
Grammar, words, style, rhythm, liberty, criticism, were other wings for them, making other prisms glimmer in their unbounded intelligence.
The mind then became aware of its destiny, unique and colorful.
The north still lives in the south of itself. East and west close together at the ends of the day. The one and the infinite make two… and they open the way to the possible and to the unity of being.
Today, it is time to think about the unification of the human, after so much blood has been shed just to claim the “oneness” of the divine.
Renan provoked: « Who will dare to say that by revealing the divine unity and definitively suppressing the local religions, the Semitic race has not laid the foundation stone for the unity and progress of humanity?”i
The Semitic God is far from man, immensely distant. But occasionally He comes near. He chooses a Nabi, an Anointed One, a prophet, a chosen one, or a pure soul, and He reveals Himself, absolutely elevated, infinitely unspeakable, all “Other”.
Next door, close by, elsewhere, the multiple, the diverse, the lowly, the “Other”, are neither « one » nor « far ».
One day, the man of the future will link the One and the Multiple, the distant and the near, the earth and the sky.
Deserts, seas, mountains and valleys will blow various winds, unique and shadowy geniuses, inaudible wisdoms, thoughts yet to be born.
iErnest Renan. Histoire générale et système comparé des langues sémitiques. (1863)
All human languages are animated by a secret spirit, an immanent soul. Over the millennia, they have developed within them their own potency, even without the participating knowledge of the fleeting peoples who speak them. In the case of ancient languages, such as Sanskrit, Egyptian, Avestic, Hebrew (biblical), Greek (Homeric), Latin, or Arabic, this spirit, soul, and other powers are still at work, many centuries after their apogee, albeit often in a hidden form. The keen, patient observer can still try to find the breath, the strength, the fire, well in evidence in ancient, famous pages or left buried in neglected works. One may sometimes succeed, unexpectedly, to find pearls, and then contemplate their special aura, their glowing, sui generis energy.
The innumerable speakers of these languages, all of them appearing late and disappearing early in their long history, could be compared to ephemeral insects, foraging briefly in the forest of fragrant, independent and fertile language flowers, before disappearing, some without having produced the slightest verbal honey, others having been able by chance to distill some rare juice, some suave sense, from time to time.
From this follows, quite logically, what must be called the phenomenal independence of languages in relation to the men who speak and think them.
Men often seem to be only parasites of their language. It is the languages that « speak » the people, more than the people speak them. Turgot said: « Languages are not the work of a reason present to itself.”
The uncertain origin and the intrinsic ‘mystery’ of languages go back to the most ancient ages, far beyond the limited horizon that history, anthropology and even linguistics are generally content with.
Languages are some kind of angels of history. They haunt the unconscious of men, and like zealous messengers, they help them to become aware of a profound mystery, that of the manifestation of the spirit in the world and in man.
The essence of a language, its DNA, is its grammar. Grammar incorporates the soul of the language, and it structures its spirit, without being able to understand its own genius. Grammatical DNA is not enough to explain the origin of the genius of language. It is also necessary to take the full measure of the slow work of epigenesis, and the sculpture of time.
Semitic languages, to take one example, are organized around verbal roots, which are called « triliters » because they are composed of three radical letters. But in fact, these verbs (concave, geminated, weak, imperfect,…) are not really « triliters ». To call them so is only « grammatical fiction », Renan saidi. In reality, triliteral roots can be etymologically reduced to two radical letters, with the third radical letter only adding a marginal nuance.
In Hebrew, the biliteral root פר (PR) carries the idea of separation, cut, break. The addition of a third radical letter following פר modifies this primary meaning, and brings like a bouquet of nuances.
Thus, the verbs : פּרד (parada, to divide), פּרה (paraa, to bear fruit), פּרח (paraha, to bloom, to bud, to burst),ּ פּרט (paratha, to break, to divide), פּרך (parakha, to crumble, to pulverize), פּרם (parama, to tear, to unravel), פּרס (paraça, to break, to divide), פּרע (para’a, to detach from, to excel), פּרץ (paratsa, to break, to shatter), פּרק (paraqa, to tear, to fragment), פּרר (parara, to break, to rape, to tear, to divide), פּרשׂ (parassa, to spread, to unfold), פּרשׁ (parasha, to distinguish, to declare).
The two letters פּ et ר also form a word, פּר, par, a substantive meaning: « young bull, sacrificial victim ». There is here, in my view, an unconscious meaning associated with the idea of separation. A very ancient, original, symbolic meaning, is still remembered in the language: the sacrificial victim is the one which is ‘separated’ from the herd, who is ‘set apart’.
There is more…
Hebrew willingly agrees to swap certain letters that are phonetically close. Thus, פּ (P) may be transmuted with other labials, such as בּ (B) or מ (M). After transmutation, the word פּר, ‘par’, is then transformed into בּר, ‘bar’, by substituting בּ for פּ. Now בּר, ‘bar‘, means ‘son’. The Hebrew thus makes it possible to associate with the idea of ‘son’ another idea, phonetically close, that of ‘sacrificial victim’. This may seem counter-intuitive, or, on the contrary, well correlated with certain very ancient customs (the ‘first born son sacrifice’). This adds another level of understanding to what was almost the fate of Isaac, the son of Abraham, whom the God YHVH asked to be sacrificed.
Just as פּ (P) permuted with בּ (B), so the first sacrificial victim (the son, ‘bar‘) permuted with another sacrificial victim (‘par‘), in this case a ram.
The biliteral root בּר, BR, ‘bar‘, gave several verbs. They are: בּרא (bara‘, ‘to create, to form’; ‘to be fat’), בּרה (baraa, ‘to eat’), בּרח (baraha, ‘to pass through, to flee’), בּרך (barakha, ‘to kneel, to bless’), בּרק (baraq, ‘lightning’), בּרר (barara, ‘to purify, to choose’).
The spectrum of these meanings, while opening the mind to other dimensions, broadens the symbolic understanding of the sacrificial context. Thus the verb bara‘, ‘he created’, is used at the beginning of Genesis, Berechit bara’ Elohim, « In the beginning created God…. ». The act of ‘creating’ (bara‘) the Earth is assimilated to the begetting of a ‘son’ (bar), but also, in a derivative sense, to the act of fattening an animal (‘the fatted calf’) for its future sacrifice. After repetition of the final R, we have the verb barara, which connotes the ideas of election and purification, which correspond to the initial justification of the sacrifice (election) and its final aim (purification). The same root, slightly modified, barakha, denotes the fact of bringing the animal to its knees before slaughtering it, a more practical position for the butcher. Hence, no doubt, the unconscious reason for the late, metonymic shift to the word ‘bless’. Kneeling, a position of humility, awaiting the blessing, evokes the position taken by the animal on the altar of sacrifice.
Hebrew allows yet other permutations with the second radical letter of the word, for example in the case cited, by substituting ר with צ. This gives: פּצה (patsaa, ‘to split, to open wide’), פּצח (patsaha, ‘to burst, to make heard’), פּצל (patsala, ‘to remove the bark, to peel’), פּצם (patsama, ‘to split’), פצע (patsa’a, ‘to wound, to bruise’). All these meanings have some connotation with the slaughter that the sacrifice of the ancient Hebrew religion requires, in marked contrast to the sacrifice of the Vedic religion, which is initiated by the grinding of plants and their mixing with clarified butter.
Lovers of Hebrew, Sanskrit, Greek, or Arabic dictionaries can easily make a thousand discoveries of this nature. They contemplate curiously, then stunned, the shimmering of these ancient languages, sedimenting old meanings by subtle shifts, and feeding on multiple metaphors, for thousands of years.
Unlike Semitic languages, the semantic roots of Chinese or the ancient language of Egypt are monosyllabic, but the rules of agglutination and coagulation of these roots also produce, though in another way, myriads of variations. Other subtleties, other nuances are discovered and unfold in an entirely different grammatical context.
These questions of grammar, roots and settled variations are fascinating, but it must be said that by confining ourselves to them, we never remain but on the surface of things.
We need to go deeper, to understand the very texture of words, their fundamental origin, whose etymology can never be enough. The time travel that etymology allows, always stops too early, in some ‘original’ sense, but that does not exhaust curiosity. Beyond that, only dense mists reign.
It has been rightly pointed out that Arabic is, in essence, a desert language, a language of nomads. All the roots bear witness to this in a lively, raw, poetic way.
In the same way, one should be able to understand why and how the Vedic language, Sanskrit, which is perhaps the richest, most elaborate language that man has ever conceived, is a language that has been almost entirely constructed from roots and philosophical and religious (Vedic) concepts. One only has to consult a dictionary such as Monier-Williams’ to see that the vast majority of Sanskrit words are metaphorically or metonymically linked to what was once a religious, Vedic image, symbol or intuition.
It is necessary to imagine these people, living six, twelve, twenty or forty thousand years ago, some of them possessing an intelligence and a wisdom as penetrating and powerful as those of Homer, Plato, Dante or Kant, but confronted to a very different ‘cultural’ environment.
These enlightened men of Prehistory were the first dreamers, the first thinkers of language. Their brains, avid, deep and slow, wove dense cocoons, from which were born eternal and brief butterflies, still flying in the light of origin, carefree, drawing arabesques, above the abyss, where the unconscious of the world never ceases to move.
The sun was created on the fourth day of Genesis. Before the sun was created, what did the first « mornings » and « evenings » look like? In what sense was a “dawn” without a morning sunbeam? An “evening” without twilight?
Genesis speaks of « evenings » and « mornings »i, but not of « nights », except at the very beginning. « God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.”ii
Why? Perhaps to suggest that the « Night » cannot be entirely given over to « Darkness ». Or because the Night, being absolutely devoid of any « light », cannot have an existence of its own. Nights = Darkness = Nothingness?
There is another possibility. The Night does exist, but the angels of light cannot have « knowledge » of it. Being made of light, they are incompatible with night. Therefore they cannot talk about it, let alone pass on its existence to posterity.
This is the reason why one passes, immediately, from evening to morning. « There was an evening, there was a morning”iii.
Another question arises, that of the nature of the « day ». Since the sun had not yet been created, perhaps we should imagine that « day » implied another source of light, for example an « intelligible light », or metaphorically, the presence of « angels of light », as opposed to « night », which would shelter the « angels of darkness »?
In any case, before the sun was born, there were three days – three mornings and three evenings – that benefited from a non-solar light and a quality of shadow that was intermediate and not at all nocturnal.
When the angels « knew » the creation (waters, heavens, lands, seas, trees, grasses…) in the first three days, they did not « see » it, nor did they get attached to it. They would have run the risk of sinking into the darkness of the night, which they did not « see », and for good reason.
In those evenings and mornings, they could also « know » the light of the spirit.
Only the “night angels” could remain in the night, this “night” which Genesis avoids naming six timesiv.
Nothing can be said about this night and this occultation of the spirit. Besides, the Bible does not even mention the word itself, as has already been said.
What is certain is that during the first three days there were no lights other than those of the spirit. Nor were there any nights other than those of the spirit.
During these three days and nights, creation received the original, founding memory of this pure light and this deep darkness.
We can also derive these words (mornings, evenings, days, nights) into other metaphors: the « mornings » of consciousness, the « nights » of the soul, – as S. Augustine who wrote about the « knowledge of the morning » and the « knowledge of the evening »v.
S. Thomas Aquinas also took up these expressions and applied them to the « knowledge of the angel »: « And as in a normal day morning is the beginning of the day, and evening is the end of the day, [St. Augustine] calls morning knowledge the knowledge of the primordial being of things, a knowledge which relates to things according to the way they are in the Word; whereas he calls evening knowledge the knowledge of the created being as existing in its own nature.” vi
Philosophically, according to Thomistic interpretation, ‘morning’ is a figurative way of designating the principle of things, their essential idea, their form. And the « evening » then represents what follows from this essence subjected to the vicissitudes of existence, which results from the interaction of the principle, the idea, the form, with the world, reality or matter.
“Morning knowledge” is a knowledge of the primordial being of things, a knowledge of their essence. “Evening knowledge” represents the knowledge of things as they exist in their own nature, in the consciousness of themselves.
Let us take an example. A tiger, an eagle or a tuna, live their own lives, in the forest, the sky or the sea. Perhaps one day we will be able to write about the unique experience of a particular tiger, a particular eagle or a particular tuna. We will have taken care to arm them with sensors from their birth, and to scrupulously record all the biological data and their encephalograms every millisecond of their existence. In a sense, we will be able to « know » their entire history with a luxury of detail. But what does « knowing » mean in this context? Over time, we will surely acquire the essence of their vision of the world, their grammars, their vocabularies, as a result of systematic, tedious and scholarly work. But will we ever discover the Dasein of a particular animal, the being of this tiger, this tuna or this eagle?
Since Plato, there has been this idea that the idea of the animal exists from all eternity, but also the idea of the lion, the idea of the dove or the idea of the oyster.
How can we effectively perceive and know the essence of the tiger, the tigerness? The life of a special tiger does not cover all the life possibilities of the animals of the genus Panthera of the Felidae family. In a sense, the special tiger represents a case in point. But in another sense, the individual remains enclosed in its singularity. It can never have lived the total sum of all the experiences of its congeners of all times past and future. It sums up the species, in one way, and it is overwhelmed on all sides by the infinity of possibilities, in another way.
To access the « morning knowledge », one must be able to penetrate the world of essences, of paradigms, of « Logos« . This is not given to everyone.
To access the « evening knowledge », one must be ready to dive into the deep night of creatures. It is not given to everyone either, because one cannot remain there without damage. This is why one must « immediately » arrive in the morning. S. Augustine comments: « But immediately there is a morning (as is true for each of the six days), for the knowledge of the angels does not remain in the ‘created’, but immediately brings it [the created] to the glory and love of the One in whom the creature is known, not as something done, but to be done.”vii
We can see that there are in fact three kinds of knowledge: diurnal knowledge, vesperal knowledge and morning knowledge.
The diurnal knowledge here is that of daylight, but one has yet to further distinguish between a daylight without the “sun” (like in the first three days of Creation), and a daylight bathing in sunlight.
As for the difference between vesperal and matutinal knowledge, it is the same as the difference between knowledge of things already done and knowledge of things yet to be accomplished.
iGn 1,5. Gn 1,8. Gn 1,13. Gn 1,19. Gn 1,23. Gn 1,31
Paul Klee’s Angelus novus has an undeniably catchy title. « The new angel », – two simple words that sum up an entire programme. But does the painting live up to the expectation created by its title? A certain ‘angel’, with a figure like no other, seems to float graphically in the air of mystery, but what is he? What does he say? It is said that there are billions of angels on the head of a single pin. Each boson, each prion, has its angel, one might think, and each man too, say the scholastics. How, under these conditions, can we distinguish between new and old angels? Aren’t they all in service, in mission, mobilised for the duration of time? And if there are « old angels », are they not nevertheless, and above all, eternal, timeless, always new in some way?
Walter Benjamin has commented on this painting by Klee, which undoubtedly ensured its paper celebrity more than anything else.
« There is a painting by Klee entitled Angelus novus. It depicts an angel who seems to have the intention of moving away from what his gaze seems to be riveted to. His eyes are wide open, his mouth open, his wings spread. Such is the aspect that the angel must necessarily have of history. His face is turned towards the past. Where a sequence of events appears before us, he sees only one and only one catastrophe, which keeps piling up ruins upon ruins and throwing them at his feet. He would like to linger, awaken the dead and gather the defeated. But a storm is blowing from paradise, so strong that the angel can no longer close its wings. This storm is constantly pushing him towards the future, to which he turns his back, while ruins are piling up all the way to heaven before him. This storm is what we call progress.”i
Striking is the distance between Benjamin’s dithyrambic commentary and Klee’s flatter, drier work. Klee’s angel actually appears static, even motionless. No sensation of movement emanates from him, either backwards or forwards. No wind seems to be blowing. His ‘wings’ are raised as if for an invocation, not for a flight. And if he were to take off, it would be upwards rather than forwards. Its « fingers », or « feathers », are pointed upwards, like isosceles triangles. His eyes look sideways, fleeing the gaze of the painter and the spectator. His hair looks like pages of manuscripts, rolled by time. No wind disturbs them. The angel has a vaguely leonine face, a strong, sensual, U-shaped jaw, accompanied by a double chin, also U-shaped. His nose seems like another face, whose eyes would be his nostrils. His teeth are wide apart, sharp, almost sickly. It even seems that several of them are missing. Do angels’ teeth decay?
Klee’s angel is sickly, stunted, and has only three fingers on his feet. He points them down, like a chicken hanging in a butcher’s shop.
Reading Benjamin, one might think he’s talking about another figure, probably dreamt of. Benjamin has completely re-invented Klee’s painting. No accumulated progress, no past catastrophe, seems to accompany this angelus novus, this young angel.
But let us move on to the question of substance. Why should history have only one ‘angel’? And why should this angel be ‘new’?
Angelology is a notoriously imperfect science. Doctors rarely seem to agree.
In Isaiah (33:7) we read: « The angels of peace will weep bitterly. » Do their renewed tears testify to their powerlessness?
In Daniel (10:13) it is said that an archangel appeared and said to Daniel: « The Prince of the Persians resisted me twenty-one days ». This archangel was Gabriel, it is said of him, and the Prince of Persia was the name of the angel in charge of the Persian kingdom.
So the two angels were fighting against each other?
It was not a fight like Jacob’s fight with the angel, but a metaphysical fight. S. Jerome explains that this angel, the Prince of the Persian kingdom, opposed the liberation of the Israelite people, for whom Daniel prayed, while the archangel Gabriel presented his prayers to God.
S. Thomas Aquinas also commented on this passage: « This resistance was possible because a prince of the demons wanted to drag the Jews who had been brought to Persia into sin, which was an obstacle to Daniel’s prayer interceding for this people.”ii
From all this we can learn that there are many angels and even demons in history, and that they are brought to fight each other, for the good of their respective causes.
According to several sources (Maimonides, the Kabbalah, the Zohar, the Soda Raza, the Maseketh Atziluth) angels are divided into various orders and classes, such as Principalities (hence the name « Prince » which we have just met for some of them), Powers, Virtues, Dominations. Perhaps the best known are also the highest in the hierarchy: the Cherubim and the Seraphim. Isaiah says in chapter 6 that he saw several Seraphim with six wings « shouting to one another ». Ezekiel (10:15) speaks of Cherubim.
The Kabbalists propose ten classes of angels in the Zohar: the Erelim, the Ishim, the Beni Elohim, the Malakim, the Hashmalim, the Tarshishim, the Shinanim, the Cherubim, the Ophanim and the Seraphim.
Maimonides also proposes ten classes of angels, arranged in a different order, but which he groups into two large groups, the « permanent » and the « perishable ».
Judah ha-Levi (1085-1140), a 12th century Jewish theologian, distinguishes between « eternal » angels and angels created at a given time, for a certain duration.
Among the myriads of possible angels, where should we place Klee’s Angelus novus, the new angel whom Benjamin called the « angel of history » with authority? Subsidiary question: is a « new angel » fundamentally permanent or eminently perishable?
In other words: is History of an eternal essence or is it made up of a series of moments with no sequel?
Benjamin thinks, as we have seen, that History is represented, at every moment, at every turning point, by a « new Angel ». History exists only as a succession of phases, it is a wireless and random necklace of moments, without a sequel.
Anything is always possible, at any moment, anything can happen, such seems to be the lesson learned, in an age of absolute anguish, or in a serene sky.
But one can also, and without any real contradiction, think that History is one, that it builds its own meaning, that it is a human fabrication, and that the divine Himself must take into account this fundamental freedom, always new, always renewed, and yet so ancient, established since the origin of its foundation.
iWalter Benjamin, Thèses sur la philosophie de l’histoire. Œuvres III, Paris, Gallimard, 2000, p. 434
Wittgenstein famously wrote in his Philosophical Investigations that if a lion could speak we could not understand him.
Why only a lion? Isn’t it also true of the tuna, the dragonfly or a rattlesnake’s nest? Or even of a pile of dust, a block of granite or a cluster of galaxies? Or a prion, a plasmid, a boson? Or an angel, a seraphim, and even God himself?
The living, the non-living or the beyond-living speak languages that cannot be translated into each other. They live or non-live in their own worlds, – while living or non-living side by side in the common world. The lion smells the blood of the impala, hears its terror, feeds on its scent, and the whole surrounding savanna learns an immemorial lesson from this feast.
God fills the world with His subtle grammar, but a single boson, too, fills the universe, in its own very tenuous way.
It is an ancient dream to speak all languages, past, present and all those yet to come.
But it is an unspeakable dream to desire to speak the language of all the aeons, all the universes.
One might say: but a stone doesn’t speak, nor a proton or a star! Only beings endowed with reason do speak.
This is, of course, a short view. Can we conceive what we are not?
The Leonine language seems closer to the Human language than to a mineral language, because there is no lack of animal metaphors, that could bind the two worldviews.
Isn’t the crushing of bones in the jaws a kind of sentence? Isn’t the agony of the victim, the smell of fear and death part of the universal volapük?
The lion « leonises ». The snake « snakes ». Man « anthropomorphizes ».
What about the aborted dream of the fly? What about the photon’s fatigue? The angel’s grief?
All these lives, these feelings, — outside of all syntax, all lexicon, but not totally out of all intuition.
If we put a million Champollions on the spot, to finally decipher the roar of the panther, the cry of the whale or the vibrato of the lizard, wouldn’t we be able to determine non-thought of structures, shapes, meaning? Wouldn’t there be some hope of establishing correspondences between languages eminently « other » than, say, Greek, Hebrew or Sanskrit? Is it certain that we will never find a new Rosetta Stone one day revealing that the languages of the living are living their own lives?
And life is not reserved for the living, by the way. The non-living, or at least what the living call it, also lives a life that is undoubtedly more secret and more fundamental, initiated at the borders of time and space…
All languages have one thing in common. They survive those who speak them. They form a world apart, which also lives its own life.
How can we understand ourselves if we cannot even understand the nature of the language we think we speak?
If we could really understand ourselves, and our language itself, would we understand better all the infinite otherness in the silent worlds, all that is obscure (to us) in the universe?
There is talking and talking. There is speaking without saying anything, and there is speaking without looking like it; there is speaking with covered words, or between the lines.
There is the music of words and there are tones. The high tone, the firm tone, the beautiful tone, the warm tone, the acid tone, the fat tone. So many tones! You need the ear, you need sensitivity.
In the slightest breath, there are ignored palimpsests, impassive, waiting for their time. And the stars also breathe.
‘Words’ are also the dark and shiny reflections, the muffled flashes of a latent fire, a fire of meaning, inaudible, unhoped for, smouldering under the ashes of appearances.
Are we essentially alone in the face of the porous mysteries of the unconscious? Are we always alone in front of what could suddenly be discovered or revealed there, after long and slow maturation? Are we alone in front of the flagrant repression of what will remain buried there forever?
Many wander in sorrow in the deserts of their own minds, they wander lonely in the ergs of understanding. Fleeing the austerity of the silent void, they flee to the hubbub.
Others think alone, against the norm, against opinion, against the crowd. « I cross the philosophical space in absolute solitude. As a result, it no longer has any limits, no walls, it doesn’t hold me back. This is my only chance.”i
But if it is difficult to think alone, it is even more difficult to think with others.
The common brings us closer and warms us up. It doesn’t encourage people to try to reach cold peaks. The community compensates for isolation, and offers fusion in the mass. But something resists. It is the haunting, extreme, demanding feeling that the ‘self’ is not the ‘us’. The ideological, collective, social ‘us’ does not intersect with the inner, personal, singular ‘self’…
Cultures, religions and civilizations are ‘us’, fleeting in essence.
They fictitiously envelop billions of solitary ‘selves’, in essence. All these ‘us’ become lifeless shells, skinless drums, after a few millennia.
The mystery is that only the ‘self’ will survive them.
A deeper mystery yet: how to survive our Self?
iCatherine Malabou, Changer de différence, – cit. in Frédéric Neyrat , Atopies.
The Vedic rite of sacrifice required the participation of four kinds of priests, with very specific functions.
The Adhvaryu prepared the altar, lit the fire and performed the actual sacrifice. They took care of all the material and manual aspects of the operations, during which they were only allowed to whisper a few incantations specific to their sacrificial activity.
The Udgatṛi were responsible for singing the hymns of SâmaVeda in the most melodious way.
The Hotṛi, for their part, had to recite in a loud voice, but without singing them, the ancient hymns of Ṛg Veda, respecting the traditional rules of pronunciation and accentuation. They were supposed to know by heart all the texts of the Veda in order to adapt to all the circumstances of the sacrifices. At the end of the litanies, they uttered a kind of wild cry, called vausat.
Finally, remaining silent throughout, an experienced Brahmin, the ultimate reference for the smooth running of the sacrifice and guarantor of its effectiveness, supervised the various phases of the ceremony.
These four kinds of priests had a very different relationship to the word (of the Veda), according to their ranks and skills.
Some murmured it, others sang it, others spoke it loudly, – and finally the most senior among them kept silent.
These different regimes of expression could be interpreted as so many modalities of the relationship of speech to the divine. One could also be content to see in them an image of the different stages of the sacrifice, an indication of its progress.
In the Vedic imagination, murmurs, songs, words, cries, and finally silence fill and increase the divine, like great rivers wind ‘safe to the sea’.
The recitation of Ṛg Veda is an endless narrative, weaving itself, according to various rhythms. One can recite it word for word (pada rhythm), or mime a path (krama) according to eight possible varieties, such as the « braid » (jatā rhythm) or the « block » (ghana rhythm).
In the « braid » (jatā ) style, a four-syllable expression (noted: abcd) became the subject of a long, repetitive and obsessive litany, such as: ab/ba/abc/cba/bc/cb/bcd/dcb/bcd…
When the time came, the recitation would « burst out » (like thunder). Acme of sacrifice.
In all the stages of the sacrifice, there was a will to connect, a linking energy. The Vedic word is entirely occupied with building links with the Deity, weaving close, vocal, musical, rhythmic, semantic correlations.
In essence, it represents the mystery of the Deity. It establishes and constitutes the substance of a link with her, in the various regimes of breath, in their learned progression.
A hymn of the Atharvaveda pushes the metaphor of breath and rhythm as far as possible. It makes us understand the nature of the act in progress, which is similar to a sacred, mystical union.
« More than one who sees has not seen the Word; more than one who hears does not hear it.
To the latter, she has opened her body
like her husband a loving wife in rich attire. »
It is interesting, I think, to compare some of these Vedic concepts to those one can find in Judaism.
In Genesis, there is talk of a « wind » from God (רוּח, ruah), at the origin of the world.i A little later, it is said that God breathed a « breath of life » (נשׁמה neshmah) so that man became a « living being » (נפשׁ nefesh).ii
God’s « wind » evokes the idea of a powerful, strong hurricane. In contrast, the « breath of life » is light as a breeze, a peaceful and gentle exhalation.
But there is also the breath associated with the word of God, which « speaks », which « says ».
Philo of Alexandria thus commented about the « breath » and « wind » of God, : « The expression (He breathed) has an even deeper meaning. Indeed three things are required: what blows, what receives, what is blown. What blows is God; what receives is Intelligence; what is blown is Breath. What is done with these elements? A union of all three occurs.”iii
Breath, soul, spirit and speech, in the end, unite.
Beyond languages, beyond cultures, from the Veda to the Bible, a profound analogy transcends worlds.
The murmurs of the Adhvaryu, the songs of Udgatṛi, the words of Hotṛi, and the very silence of the Brahmin, aim at an union with the divine.
The union of these various breaths (murmured, spoken, sung, silent breaths) is analogous in principle, it seems to me, to the union of the wind (ruah), the soul (neshmah), and the spirit (nefesh).
In the Veda and in the Bible, — across the millennia, the union of the word and the breath, mimics the union of the divine and the human.
It is important to know whether the world is one or not. On this difficult matter Henri Michaux is quite assertive: « There are four worlds (apart from the natural world and the alienated world). Only one appears at a time. These worlds categorically exclude the normal world, and exclude each other. Each of them has a clear, unique correspondence with a place in your body, which is taken to another level of energy, and receives instantaneous nourishment, rejuvenation and warmth.”i
Why only four worlds then, and not many more ?
The human body possesses, in several precise points within the spinal cord, energy nodes, moose nests, areas of illumination, seats of pleasure, sacred vertebrae, unfolded plexuses, where perhaps some special and subtle gateways, wirelessly connected to other worlds, are initiated. In India, these points are known as chakras.
The spinal column is not alone, moreover, in concealing mysteries (in this case medullary ones). The human brain welcomes other secrets, lodged between the medulla oblongata and the thalamus. But there is not enough room to describe them here, and the words are too worn and connoted.
Misunderstood, Michaux the poet is too much elsewhere, dilated, honest. He is really elsewhere than in an Orient or an Occident of paper. He pays with his person, takes risks, puts himself in danger.
Michaux has taken drugs like a taxi. How can one go higher than the stars when the meter is running, when time is running out, when the arteries are congested?
How to describe what has never been put into words, the unstoppable?
There are undoubtedly other ways than spinal or synaptic, freer, less congested.
Michaux knew this, in a sense. He kept a cool head when the force rose. He went very far, very high, and came back. He wandered for a long time in the tangled infinity, slipped into the sealed space. Others would have perished, got lost. He drew some maps of it. He thickened his blood, he marked his trace, accumulated reminiscence, then came back to lay down his nights on paper.
« There are still two other ‘beyond’, equally exclusive, closed, where one only enters thanks to a kind of cyclone, and to arrive at a world that is itself a cyclone, but the center of a cyclone, where it is liveable and where even it is Life par excellence. You get there by transport, by trance.”ii
One transport for two ‘beyond’. What a masterstroke.
The « cyclone » is a meteorological phenomenon whose characteristic feature is the whirlwind.
« Life » is a biological phenomenon whose image is the spiral, such as that of DNA, or the kundalini.
« Trance » is a psychological phenomenon whose trajectory can take the form of a parable, hyperbola or ellipse, among others. These mathematical figures are also figures of speech. This leads to a more difficult question: what is the trance itself the figure of?
Trance is a ‘transport’, Michaux asserts.
Every expanse requires a means of transport. Trance meets this need. It is a means of transport, a figure of tension towards transcendence. « If the expanse is one of the characters of the divine, much more so is the tension.”iii
It’s a desire to see the truth, to see the whole of nothingness. « The insignificance of the constructions of the mind appears. Contemplation without mixing. We no longer think about affiliations, designations, determinations, we can do without them; the wind has passed over them, a psychic wind that undoes them before determinations, categories are born. “iv
A finding of sarcastic impotence. The spirit means nothing by itself. It is free like a whip antenna.
A « wind » passes far above the human brain, undoing everything that is not born, everything that is content with the static. In exchange, without mixing, what Michaux calls « contemplation ». Undoing rather than doing, the lot of the poet on the hunt.
« Every man is a « yes » with « no ». After the unheard of and somehow unnatural acceptances, one must expect returns of « no », while something continues to act, which cannot be erased, nor can it go back, living in the shadows of the Unforgettable. Ongoing evolution… »v
Man is a « yes », with « no », and perhaps with « maybe », and no doubt with doubts. But surely there is something else again, that neither « yes » nor « no » can say, and « perhaps » even less so, and doubt, not at all.
Man is also, without knowing it, that « something » living in secret.
This living « something » separated from the unforgettable.
That unforgettable, which we have never seen, and which we have forgotten, and which is alive.
In close order, on the white sheet of paper, many small pieces of black diamonds. Badly cut, they vibrate in obtrusive variations, they play with accents and margins. This is all that remains of « mescaline speed »:
« Drugs, let us remember, are more revealing than creative.”vi
The poet dreams alone, but we can think, being many.
Let’s go back for a moment: « I would like to unveil the ‘normal’, the unknown, the unsuspected, the incredible, the enormous normal. The abnormal has made it known to me (…) I would like to unveil the complex mechanisms that make man above all an operator.”vii
« Normal »… « Operator »… « Mechanisms »…
How do these standard, normal words fit in with the mescaline experience?
« It was always about going beyond, superhumanizing, transmuting, transubstantiating everything, sometimes opening up to the sacred, the sacred is a mode, the one according to which we receive.”viii
The poet is a mystery to himself and to others. He opens doors and worlds, takes away their veils from the heavens, strips the spirit from his herds, fills the books with black and ochre battalions, and sets up his fame as an ascetic. And yet nothing, really nothing of what really matters, shows through the tidy fog of the pages.
Man, poet or not, still has a long way to go, before reaching parallel universes, which are far beyond « icy skies »ix, and which no language has ever touched.
iHenri Michaux Les Grandes Épreuves de l’Esprit. Œuvres complètes, tome III .Gallimard, 2004. p.418
ii« Il existe encore deux autres « au-delà », tout aussi exclusifs, fermés, où l’on n’entre que grâce à une sorte de cyclone, et pour arriver à un monde qui est lui-même un cyclone, mais centre de cyclone, là où c’est vivable et où même c’est par excellence la Vie. On y accède par transport, par transe. » Henri Michaux Les Grandes Épreuves de l’Esprit, et les innombrables petites. Œuvres complètes, III .Gallimard, 2004. p.422
Not only prophets have visions. Poets also are « seers ». Thus, Henri Michaux. He has gone up to the « silent theater of the heights (…) towards the beyond that appears, disappears and reappears.”i
But what did Michaux really « see »?
The afterlife is not within everyone’s reach. One needs calm eyes, gentle nerves. Rare are the direct witnesses, those who have seen the beyond of the world, the infinite, acute, nascent, initial abyss, rising straight up beyond the heavens, effortlessly eluding all known peaks.
The effort is above all in coming back. The memory is overwhelmed. Intelligence wavers in its doubt. Faith is blind. Returning, whoever has seen it recognizes it here and there, in obscure verses, heard silences, allusive sentences.
In the middle of a page, a word, an echo perhaps, an infinitesimal resonance.
« Perhaps the heavens are opening up.”ii This is not a hypothesis, it is an observation. « An Auguste Presence came to the destitute.” The following question is not formal:
Michaux, who knows the weight of words, finally gives up and multiplies the « suspension points », as many points as it takes to equal the last line.
Perhaps they are more suitable than ‘unzipping’?
The poet takes the risk of words. He tries to say what he may not have seen, what he may have sensed. He embarks on a narrow path, in the Paris of the avenues, the city of lights. He calls for his help, the skilful writer, words in capital letters:
Capital letters, again, this is a serious matter. Michaux found his mistress in vision, without mescaline, — and he asks questions:
« To whom does the supernatural appear?
Commonly to children, not at all brilliant, far from the cities, from the walls. Not very enviable, one would not distinguish them, neither too studious, nor very pious, without any special quality, from a modest environment, knowing especially the discomfort, in a small lost village. They are not liars.”viii
But the appearance does not stop there. The vision is only a step. There is the rest. The healing, which strikes the crowds, and even the devious clergymen:
« And who heals? In whom does the supernatural healing take place? »
We are no longer in the realm of convention. Already in their afterlife.
« In a multi-religious country, while many pious people pray in vain near the tomb of a Catholic monk, as they themselves are, a Shiite woman who knows nothing about the Christian religion is healed in the moment (but does not convert). She had confidence and a faith as one should have it, overwhelming, a rare, exceptional treasure.”ix
Michaux wonders: « In whom exactly did she have faith? Secret.”x
Can « modern » people help to see things clearly?
« What about scientists?
One day perhaps, taking the embarrassing problem from another angle, science will find in the brain, thanks to a more precise location of a point in the organism that controls a self-healing function (under the effect of intense emotion), and will in turn approach the miracle with its own means and will even want to produce it coldly, in some cases replacing in its own way the exaltation of faith. Spoiling here, improving there in the unexpected, opening the door to new mysteries.”xi
Miracle, exaltation, unexpected, mystery: all the words point to still other questions. There is never an end to it. It’s better this way. The victories (in this case putative) of science would be, in this matter, pyrrhic. Or a miracle point nested at the bottom of the pineal gland. What if it is? Why does this point activate? Under the effect of an « intense emotion »? But where does this emotion come from? What creates it, what gives it its energy? The body is not an island. The soul is linked to the body, a little, and to the beyond, even more so, if we believe the « daughter of the mountain ».
Not that she said anything later. She discouraged questions. She avoided declarations of faith. Her silence still speaks.
A little over two thousand years ago, Philo of Alexandria advocated radical emigration. He did not care about land borders, historical nations, geographical territories. « You must emigrate, in search of your father’s land, the land of the sacred word, the land of the father of those who practice virtue. This land is wisdom. « i
He was looking for access to another world, whose foreboding had come to him in a strange way, and whose presence seemed irrefutable to him. « Sometimes I would come to work as if I were empty, and suddenly I was full, ideas fell invisible from the sky, spread out inside me like a shower. Under this divine inspiration I was so excited that I no longer recognized anything, neither the place where I was, nor those who were there, nor what I was saying or writing.”ii
Philo had been seized several times by divine inspiration, he had « seen » it. « To see », at that time, was « to know ». In the old days in Israel, when people went to God for advice, they would say, « Come, let us go to the seer! For the one we call the prophet today was once called the seer.”iii
After his long fight in the dark night, Jacob too had wanted to « see ». He had wanted to hear the name of the one he had fought, to finally « see » him. But the name he asked for was not revealed to him. He only heard his own name, what was to be his new name. A name given by the one who kept his own name silent. Only then did Jacob « see ». But what did he see? A name? An idea? A future?
All we know is that he heard a voice in the night that gave him his name, his new and true name.
This voice is a light in the night. A voice of wisdom, no doubt, which sees itself, a splendour, of which the sun would never be but a faint image.
Jacob heard his « name », and he was no longer Jacob. He heard, – and then he « saw ». The important thing was not the name, but that he « saw ».
Philo explains this: « If the voice of mortals is addressed to the hearing, the oracles reveal to us that the words of God are, like light, things seen. It is said, ‘All the people sawthe voice‘ (Ex. 20:15) instead of ‘heard the voice’. For indeed there was no shaking of the air due to the organs of the mouth and tongue; there was the splendor of virtue, identical with the source of reason. The same revelation is found in this other form: ‘You have seen that I have spoken to you from heaven’ (Ex. 20:18), instead of ‘you have heard‘, always for the same reason. There are occasions when Moses distinguishes between what is heard and what is seen, hearing and sight. ‘You heard the sound of the words, and you saw no form but a voice’ (Deut. 4:12).”iv
Seeing the voice, hearing the word, the « sound of the word ». These words have a double meaning.
In the original Hebrew we read: « kol debarim atem shome’im » ( קוׄל דְּבָרׅים אַתֶּם שֺׁמְעׅים ), which literally translates as : « you have heard the voice of the words ». This is a veiled indication that the « words » in question are like living beings, since they have a « voice ». This voice is not embodied in « air shaking », but is given to be « seen ». This « voice » inhabits the interior of the words, it makes their immanent nature, their « secret » dimension visible, it reveals an enigmatic background, of which they are the living mirror.
Whether they are Kabbalists, Vedic or Sufi, the mystics all know their own path towards this nature, this secret. Rûmî, John of the Cross or Jacob Boehme have followed this path of discovery as far as possible. Great writers of language, they showed how the language of the gods (or of God) could marry with that of men, and give birth to manifest secrets. Everything that is, everything that is said, everything that is presented to reason, has a background. These mystics have shown, as far as men can do it, that part of the essence of the world is in language, or, better said: « is » language.
The translation of this famous verse is not easy. Here are a few attempts:
« There was no being, there was no non-being at that time. « (Renou)
« Nothing existed then, neither being nor non-being. « (Müller)
« Nothing existed then, neither visible nor invisible. « (Langlois)
« Then even nothingness was not, nor existence. « (Basham)
« Not the non-existent existed, nor did the existent then » (Art. Nasadiya Sukta. Wikipedia).
“Then was not non-existent nor existent.” (Griffith)
How to render with words what was before words? How to say a « being » that « is » before « being » and also, moreover, before « non-being »? How to describe the existence of what existed before existence and before non-existence?
We also begin to think by analogy: how can we hope to think what is obviously beyond what is thinkable? How can we think possible even to try to think the unthinkable?
How can we know whether words like sát, ásat, āsīt, mono- or bi-syllabic messengers, which have reached us intact over the millennia, and which benefit from the semantic precision of Sanskrit, still live a real, meaningful, authentic life?
The Nasadiya Sukta anthem is at least 4000 years old. Long before it was memorized in writing in the Veda corpus, it was probably transmitted from generation to generation by a faithful oral tradition. Its verses are pure intellectual delight, so much so that they stand slightly, far above the void, beyond common sense, a frail bridge, a labile trace, between worlds :
Louis Renou translates these two verses as follows:
« There was no being, there was no non-being at that time. There was no space or firmament beyond. What was moving? Where, under whose guard? Was there deep water, bottomless water?
Neither death was at that time, nor undead, no sign distinguishing night from day. The One breathed breathlessly, moved by himself: nothing else existed beyond.”ii
“Then was not non-existent nor existent: there was no realm of air, no sky beyond it. What covered in, and where? And what gave shelter? Was water there, unfathomed depth of water?
Death was not then, nor was there aught immortal: no sign was there, the day’s and night’s divider. That One Thing, breathless, breathed by its own nature: apart from it was nothing whatsoever.”iii
Max Müller :
« Nothing existed then, neither being nor non-being; the bright sky was not yet, nor the broad canvas of the firmament stretched out above it. By what was everything wrapped, protected, hidden? Was it by the unfathomable depths of the waters?
There was no death, no immortality. There was no distinction between day and night. The One Being breathed alone, taking no breath, and since then there has been nothing but Him. “iv
Alexandre Langlois :
« Nothing existed then, neither visible nor invisible. Point of upper region; point of air; point of sky. Where was this envelope (of the world)? In which bed was the wave contained? Where were these impenetrable depths (of air)?
There was no death, no immortality. Nothing announced day or night. He alone breathed, forming no breath, enclosed within himself. He alone existed.”v
From these various versions, it appears that the translators share a certain consensus on the following points:
Before there was nothing, there was « the One », also called « Him ».
Before the world was, the One existed, alone, and He breathed – without breath.
The Rig Veda claimed that « the One is », long before the time came of any Genesis, long before a « wind of God » came over the waters.
The following verses then take flight, using words and images that may evoke memories of the Genesis in the Bible (- which appeared later than the Veda by at least two millennia, it should be noted):
« Originally darkness covered darkness, everything we see was just an indistinct wave. Enclosed in the void, the One, accessing the Being, was then born by the power of heat.
Desire developed first, which was the first seed of thought; searching thoughtfully in their souls, the wise men found in non-being the bond of being.
Their line was stretched diagonally: what was the top, what was the bottom? There were seed bearers, there were virtues: below was spontaneous energy, above was the Gift.”vi
“Darkness there was: at first concealed in darkness this All was indiscriminated chaos. All that existed then was void and formless: by the great power of Warmth was born that Unit.
There after rose Desire in the beginning. Desire, the primal seed and germ of spirit. Sages, who searched with their heart’s thought discovered the existent’s kinship in the non-existent.
Tranversely was their severing line extended: what was above it then, and what below it? There were begetters, there were mighty forces, free action here and energy up yonder.”vii
« The seed, which was still hidden in its envelope, suddenly sprang up in the intense heat.Then love, the new source of the spirit, joined it for the first time.
Yes, the poets, meditating in their hearts, discovered this link between created things and what was uncreated. Does this spark that gushes out everywhere, that penetrates everything, come from the earth or the sky?
Then the seeds of life were sown and great forces appeared, nature below, power and will above.”viii
« In the beginning the darkness was shrouded in darkness; the water was without impulse. Everything was confused. The Being rested in the midst of this chaos, and this great All was born by the force of his piety.
In the beginning Love was in him, and from his spirit the first seed sprang forth. The wise men (of creation), through the work of intelligence, succeeded in forming the union of the real being and the apparent being.
The ray of these (wise men) went forth, extending upwards and downwards. They were great, (these wise men); they were full of a fruitful seed, (such as a fire whose flame) rises above the hearth that feeds it.”ix
Note that, for some translators, in the beginning « darkness envelops darkness ». Others prefer to read here a metaphor, that of the « seed », hidden in its « envelope ».
Is it necessary to give a meaning, an interpretation to the « darkness », or is it better to let it bathe in its own mystery?
Let us also note that some translators relate the birth of the All to « warmth », while others understand that the origin of the world must be attributed to « piety » (of the One). Material minds! Abstract minds! How difficult it is to reconcile them!
So, « piety » or « warmth »? The Sanskrit text uses the word « tapas« : तपस्.
Huet translates « tapas » by « heat, ardour; suffering, torment, mortification, austerities, penance, asceticism », and by extension, « the strength of soul acquired through asceticism ».
Monier-Williams indicates that the tap– root has several meanings: « to burn, to shine, to give heat », but also « to consume, to destroy by fire » or « to suffer, to repent, to torment, to practice austerity, to purify oneself by austerity ».
Two semantic universes emerge here, that of nature (fire, heat, burning) and that of the spirit (suffering, repentance, austerity, purification).
If we take into account the intrinsic dualism attached to the creation of the « Whole » by the « One », the two meanings can be used simultaneously and without contradiction.
An original brilliance and warmth probably accompanied the creation of some inchoate Big Bang. But the Vedic text also underlines another cause, not physical, but metaphysical, of the creation of the world, by opening up to the figurative meaning of the word « tapas« , which evokes « suffering », « repentance », or even « asceticism » that the One would have chosen, in his solitude, to impose on himself, in order to give the world its initial impulse.
This Vedic vision of the suffering of the One is not without analogy with the concept of kenosis, in Christian theology, and with the Christic dimension of the divine sacrifice.
The Judaic concept of tsimtsum (the « contraction » of God) could also be related to the Vedic idea of « tapas« .
From this hymn of the Rig Veda, the presence of a very strong monotheistic feeling is particularly evident. The Veda is fundamentally a « monotheism », since it stages, even before any « Beginning » of the world, the One, the One who is « alone », who breathes « without breath ».
Furthermore, let us also note that this divine One can diffract Himself into a form of divine « trinity ». Dominating darkness, water, emptiness, confusion and chaos, the One Being (the Creator) creates the Whole. The Whole is born of the Being because of his « desire », his « Love », which grows within the « Spirit », or « Intelligence ».x
The idea of the One is intimately associated with that of the Spirit and that of Love (or Desire), which can be interpreted as a trinitarian representation of divine unity.
The last two verses of the Nasadiya Sukta finally tackle head-on the question of origin and its mystery.
« Who knows in truth, who could announce it here: where did this creation come from, where does it come from? The gods are beyond this creative act. Who knows where it emanates from?
This creation, from where it emanates, whether it was made or not, – he who watches over it in the highest heaven probably knows it… or whether he did not know it? “xi
« Who knows these things? Who can say them? Where do beings come from? What is this creation? The Gods were also produced by him. But who knows how he exists?
He who is the first author of this creation, supports it. And who else but him could do so? He who from heaven has his eyes on all this world, knows it alone. Who else would have this science?”xii
“Who verily knows and who can here declare it, whence it was born, and whence comes this creation? The Gods are later than this world’s production. Who knows then whence it first came into being?
He, the first origin of this creation, whether he formed it all or did not form it, whose eye controls this world in highest heaven, he verily knows it, or perhaps he knows not.”xiii
« Who knows the secret? Who here tells us where this varied creation came from? The Gods themselves came into existence later: who knows where this vast world came from?
Whoever has been the author of all this great creation, whether his will has ordered it or whether his will has been silent, the Most High « Seer » who resides in the highest of the heavens, it is he who knows it, – or perhaps He Himself does not know it? »xiv
The final pun (« Perhaps He Himself does not know it? ») carries, in my opinion, the essence of the intended meaning.
That the Gods, as a whole, are only a part of the creation of the Most High, again confirms the pre-eminence of the One in the Veda.
But how can we understand that the « Seer » may not know whether He Himself is the author of the creation, how can He not know whether it was made – or not made?
One possible interpretation would be that the Whole received an initial impulse of life (the « breath »). But this is not enough. The world is not a mechanism. The Whole, though ‘created’, is not ‘determined’. The Seer is not « Almighty », nor « Omniscient ». He has renounced his omnipotence and omniscience, through assumed asceticism. His suffering must be understood as the consequence of risk taking on the part of the One, the risk of the freedom of the world, the risk involved in the creation of free essences, essentially free beings created freely by a free will.
This essential freedom of the Whole is, in a sense, « an image » of the freedom of the One.
Louis XIV’s tutor, François de la Mothe le Vayer, wrote a text entitled « Des parties appelées honteuses aux hommes et aux femmes » (About the body parts of men and women called shameful) in his book Hexaméron rustique. Among other anecdotes, he notes: « As Pliny wrote that the Lampreys have a soul in their tail, a scandalous Poet dared to give a spirit to his own, by this infamous allusion, … et habet mea Mentula mentem (… and my dick has a spirit); which covers a libertine accompanied by impiety. ».
If the spirit, by some chance, can wander its power in these parts, it is nevertheless advisable not to succumb to the spectacle of the imagination, and to be fooled by purely external details.
La Mothe warns: « But one should not believe that the greatness of this part is as great as one imagines it to be. Aristotle maintains that it harms rather than serves the generation: Quibus penis immodicus, infoecundiores iis quibus mediocris, non refrigeratur longo itinere et mora genitura. » (Animals with an oversized penis are less fertile than those with an average size because the cold semen is not fertile and cools down by travelling too far).
We must act of parity here, it is the least we can do. As for the part that the women cover with so much modesty, the Ancients were not particularly stammering. At the festivals of the Thesmophoria in Syracuse, the whole of Sicily ate honey and sesame cakes, which had « the figure of the shameful part of the woman ».
I now come to the heart of the matter, with much more obscure, and no doubt more consequential, extensions.
La Mothe remarks that « Egyptian women exposed themselves with their skirts tied high up for forty days at their new Apis feast; as if they had been in the mood of that infamous Roman, ‘mirator cunni Cupiennus albi’ (Cupiennus, admirer of cunts veiled in white). And Origen reproaches them, refuting the Epicurean Celsus, that they believed that their Apollo entered the belly of the Sibylls to return his Oracles: « Mulierem numen concipere per eas partes, quas conspicere nefas prudens vir ducat » (A woman brings a divinity in through those secret parts which a wise man considers unholy to look at).
God’s ways are impenetrable, we are told, but his Spirit can enter wherever he wishes.
Far from being shocked, the wise man will think a thousand times about the penetrating power of (divine) ideas, for which no barrier can be erected for long. To say that the divinity can penetrate the bodies of women, or halo the Mentula of men, is nothing to be ashamed of. Rather, it seems to me a phenomenal, insidious, fertile, perfectly non-modern idea, and no doubt, by that very fact, promised to a great future, provided that it is taken in a different way than « veiled in white ».
There are five elements (Earth, Water, Fire, Air, Ether), and the human body has five parts that correspond to them. Between the feet and the knees is the level of the Earth. Between the knees and the anus is the level of Water. Between the anus and the heart, that of Fire. Between the heart and the eyebrows, that of Air. Between the eyebrows and the top of the skull, the Ether reigns.
That is not all. These five elements and these five parts of the body have divine correspondences.
Brahman rules the Earth, Viṣṇu Water, Rudra the Fire, Iṥvara Air and Ṥiva Ether.
What does this tight network of disparate relationships imply about the mutual relationships of these five Gods?
Iṥvara is the « Supreme Lord », but it is only one of Brahman‘s manifestations. If Brahman is the ultimate cosmic reality, why is it found between the feet and the knees, rather than at the top of the skull?
These questions are interesting, but they do not touch the essence of the problem. Symbolic systems have their own logic, which is an overall logic. It aims to grasp a Whole, to grasp a meaning of a higher order. What is important is to understand the general movement of symbolic thought, to catch its essential aim.
For example, let us consider the symbolism of the number 3 in the Vedic texts, – the symbolism of the triad.
« Three are the worlds, three are the Vedas, three are the functions of the Rite, all three are ‘three’. Three are the Fires of Sacrifice, three are the natural qualities. And all these triads are based on the three phonemes of the syllable AUṀ. Whoever knows this triad, to which we must add the nasal resonance, knows that on which the entire universe is woven. That which is truth and supreme reality.”i
The idea of the triad, which may appear a priori as nothing more than a systemic tic, refers in the Veda to a deeper idea, that of trinity.
The most apparent divine trinity in the Veda is that of Brahman, the Creator, Viṣṇu, the Protector and Ṥiva, the Destroyer.
Here is a brief theological-poetical interpretation, in which we will note the symphonic interpenetration of multiple levels of interpretation:
« Those who desire deliverance meditate on the Whole, the Brahman, the syllable AUṀ. In phoneme A, the first part of the syllable, Earth, Fire, Rig Veda, the exclamation « Bhūr » and Brahman, the creator, are born and will dissolve. In phoneme U, second part of the syllable, Space, Air, Yajur-Veda, the exclamation « Bhuvaḥ » and Viṣṇu, the Protector, are born and will dissolve. In the phoneme Ṁ are born and will dissolve Heaven, Light, Sama-Veda, the exclamation « Suvar » and Ṥiva, the Lord.”ii
In a unique, single syllable, the Word, the Vedas, the Worlds, the Gods are woven from the same knots, three times knotted.
Why three, and not two, four, five or six?
Two would be too simple, a metaphor for combat or the couple. Four forms two couples. Five is a false complexity and is only the addition of a couple and a triad. Six represents a couple of triads.
The idea of Three is the first simple idea, which comes after the idea of One, – the One from which everything comes, but about which nothing can be said. Three, in its complex simplicity, constitutes a kind of fundamental paradigm, combining the idea of unity and that of duality in a higher unity.
Long after the Vedas, Christianity also proposed a Trinity, that of the Creator God, the Word and the Spirit. It might be stimulating to try to see possible analogies between the Word and Viṣṇu, or between the Spirit and Ṥiva, but where would this ultimately lead us? To the conclusion that all religions come together?
It also seems very interesting to turn to the uncompromising monotheism(s), which apparently refuse any « association » with the idea of the One. Judaism, as we know, proclaims that God is One. But rabbinism and Kabbalah have not hesitated to multiply divine attributes or emanations.
The God of Genesis is a creator, in a way analogous to the Brahman. But the Bible also announces a God of Mercy, which recalls Viṣṇu, and it also proclaims the name of Yahweh Sabbaoth, the Lord of Hosts, which could well correspond to Ṥiva, the Lord Destroyer.
One could multiply comparable examples and use them to make the hypothesis that rather recent religions, such as Judaism or Christianity, owe much to the experience of previous millennia. Anyone concerned with paleo-anthropology knows that the depths of humanity’s times possess even greater secrets.
But the important point I would like to stress here is not, as such, the symbol of the triad or the Trinitarian image.
They are, in the end, in the face of the mystery itself, only images, metaphors.
The important thing is not the metaphor, but what it leads us to seek.
Perhaps another triadic metaphor will help us to understand the very nature of this search:
« AUṀ is the bow, the mind is the arrow, and the Brahman is the target.”iii
Soma is a flammable liquid, composed of clarified butter and various hallucinogenic plant juices. On a symbolic level, Soma is both a representation of the living God, the embodiment of the essence of the cosmos, and the sacrifice par excellence to the supreme God.
Vedic hymns, composed to accompany the sacrifice of the Soma, abound in metaphors, attributes and epithets of the divinity. Verbs such as to pour, to flow, to come, to abide, to embrace, to beget are used to describe the action of God.
Many hymns evoke, in a raw or subliminal way, the dizziness of (divine) love. Words such as lover, woman, womb, ardour, pleasure. But here again, they are metaphors, with hidden meanings, which must be carefully interpreted.
The sacrifice of the divine Soma can be summed up as follows: a mixture of oil, butter and milk flows in flames towards the « matrix » (the crucible where the fire blazes with all its strength), then rises in smoke and fragrance towards Heaven, where it participates in the generation of the divine.
The 9th Mandala of the Rig Veda, entirely dedicated to the sacrifice of the Soma, considered as a God, explains the profound meaning of what is at stake and its cosmic effects. Here are a few quotes, which, I believe, capture the essence of what’s at stake:
« The poured Soma flows for the Ardent, for the Wind, for that which envelops, for the Spirits, for the Active.»i
« This golden light, support, flows into that which ignites it; that which crackles flows into the matrix.”ii
« He who is here [the Soma] has come like an eagle to take up his abode, like the lover to the woman.”iii
« This gold that one drinks, and which flows rumbling towards the matrix, towards pleasure.”iv
« That which flows from desire, comes from that which moves away and from that which comes near, – the sweetness poured out for the Ardent.”v
« Those who go together shouted. They made the gold flow with the stone. Take up residence in the matrix where it flows.”vi
« The sound of the burning Ardent, like the sound of rain; lightning goes into the sky.”vii
« Bringing forth the lights of the sky, generating the sun in the waters, gold envelops milk and waters.”viii
« Coming from the original milk, He flows into the hearth, embracing it, and by crying He generates the Gods.”ix
« Soma, as He lights up, flows towards all the treasures, towards the Gods who grow through the oblation.”x
Other mystical traditions, the Jewish for example, share with the Vedic language comparable semantic elements, similar metaphors (oil, honey, milk, entrails, bosom, matrix, water, wine or liquor, pouring out, flowing into, ).
Particularly interesting in this respect is the Song of Songs, composed between six and eight centuries after the Rig Veda.
We can see that the Rig Veda and the Song of Songs, centuries apart, share, despite their distance, a comparable atmosphere of loving fusion with the divine.
This should come as no surprise. There is no doubt that this is an indication of the existence of an extremely profound anthropological constant.
The traces left in the Palaeolithic by prehistoric religions, which show comparable metaphors, bear witness to this.
The Venus of Laussel is 25,000 years old. Naked, she brandishes a horn to drink it. This gesture, always young, reminds us that in the oldest ages of humanity, the divine was already perceived in the guise of love, – and (infinite) drunkenness, a spiritual one of course, but in a strange sort of way, associated to a more mundane one.
iRig Veda. Mandala9.Hymn 34,.2. For reference, the translation of Ralph T.H. Griffith (1889) gives : « Poured forth to Indra, Varuṇa, to Vāyu and the Marut host, to Viṣṇu, flows the Soma juice. »
iiIbid. Hymn 37,2. For reference, the translation of Ralph T.H. Griffith (1889) gives : « Far-sighted, tawny-coloured, he flows to the sieve, intelligent, bellowing, to his place of rest. »
iiiIbid. Hymn 38,4. For reference, the translation of Ralph T.H. Griffith (1889) gives : « He like a falcon settles down amid the families of men. Speeding like lover to his love. »
ivIbid. Hymn 38,6. For reference, the translation of Ralph T.H. Griffith (1889) gives : « Poured for the draught, this tawny juice flows forth, intelligent, crying out, unto the well-beloved place. »
vIbid. Hymn 39,5. For reference, the translation of Ralph T.H. Griffith (1889) gives : « Inviting him from far away, and even from near at hand, the juice for Indra is poured forth as meath. »
viIbid. Hymne 39,6. Ralph T.H. Griffith (1889) translates: « In union they have sung the hymn ; with stones they urge the Tawny One. Sit in the place of sacrifice. »
viiIbid. Hymn 41,3. Ralph T.H. Griffith (1889) translates: « The mighty Pavamāna’s roar is heard as ‘twere the rush of rain. Lightnings are flashing to the sky. »
viiiIbid. Hymn 42,1. Ralph T.H. Griffith (1889) translates: « Engendering the Sun in floods, engendering heaven’s lights, green-hued, robed in the waters and the milk. »
ixIbid. Hymn 42,4. Ralph T.H. Griffith (1889) translates: « Shedding the ancient fluid He is poured into the cleansing sieve ; He, thundering, hath produces the Gods. »
xIbid. Hymn 42,5. Ralph T.H. Griffith (1889) translates: « Soma, while purifying, sends hither all things to be desired, He sends the Gods who strenghten Law. »
The poet was guided in his long quest by Virgil, then by Beatrice, to the threshold of the Empyrean. The supreme vision, he has not yet seen it, however. What appears to him then, in the shape of a white rose, is the « holy militia that Christ espoused in his blood ». And in this great flower, plunges, like a swarm of bees, another army of angels, flying and singing the glory of him who sets them ablaze with love. And all these angels « had faces of bright flame, and wings of gold, and the rest so white that no snow comes to this end ».i
Dante marveled at the « triple light », divine, penetrating, which shines « like a star » in this quiet kingdom, – and he thought back on all the road he had already traveled, from the human to the divine, from time to eternity, from corruption to justice, and on what still awaits him…
« I, who had come to the divine
from the human, from time to eternity,
and from Florence to the just and healthy people,
of what astonishment I should be filled with! »
Mute with stupor, indeed, Dante sees « eyes, inviting to love, shining with the light of another and their own laughter ». He also sees with a single glance « the general shape of Paradise ». He turns to Beatrice, to question her, but she is no longer there! In her place, an old man, dressed in glory.
« Where is she? « asks Dante at once. The old man replies that Beatrice has brought him down in her place, to bring Dante’s desire « to an end ».
But, adds the old man, – who is, in reality, St. Bernard:
« If you look at the third row
from the highest tier, you will see her again.
on the throne won by her merits. »
Dante looks up and sees her, « who made herself a crown of eternal rays reflected in her. »
Beatrice was at an immeasurable distance from Dante; she was very high, far beyond the reach of a mortal eye, – but it was like nothing, « for her image came down to me unmixed ».
From his abyss of remoteness, Dante addresses Beatrice:
« O lady, in whom my hope comes alive,
and who suffered for my salvation
to leave in Hell the trace of your footsteps,
of so many things I have seen
by your power and kindness,
I recognize grace and virtue.
You pulled me from bondage to freedom
by all these ways, by all these modes
that you had the power to use.
Preserve in me your magnificence,
that my soul, which thou hast healed,
is untied from my body by pleasing you. »
The tone is high, the prayer urgent, the love burning. The poet already despairs of his misfortune. He has just been abandoned by his lover at the very moment when he thought he was reaching Paradise, in her company.
What happens then? Three verses say it, – « the most pathetic verses that literature has ever given us », according to J.L. Borgèsii.
« Cosi orai; e quella, si lontana
come parrea, sorrise e riguaradommi ;
poi si torno a l’etterna fontana. »
« I prayed like this, and so far away
that she seemed, she smiled and looked at me ;
then she turned back to the eternal fountain. »
Beatrice smiles at Dante one last time, then turns her back on him to devote herself to the divine vision.
Borgès was so moved by these verses, that he collected comments about them from various authors. For Francesco Torraca: « Last glance, last smile but a sure promise ». Luigi Pietrobono, in the same vein: « She smiles to tell Dante that her prayer has been answered; she looks at him to prove once again the love she has for him. «
Ozanam goes in another direction and considers these verses to be a modest description of « Beatrice’s apotheosis ». But Borgès is not satisfied. He wants to go further. It is really a question for Dante, he says, to let us glimpse the « nightmares of delight ».
The « nightmare », in the Empyrean, on the threshold of ultimate happiness? What a strange idea, that this Borgesean incision!
At this point, a little biographical reminder is perhaps necessary.
One day, in a street in Florence, Beatrice de Folco Portinari did not respond to a greeting from Dante. Did she only love him? It must be thought that she did not. She had already married Bardi. And shortly after this incident she died, at the age of twenty-four.
Dante had always loved her, but in vain.
And now he had found her again, a little later, in his long literary quest. He even thought he had found her again forever, before the eternity of Paradise opening up to him, in his close company.
Suddenly, « horror »… Beatrice smiles at him but turns around and prefers the eternal fountain of light.
Francesco De Sanctis, for his part, had commented on this passage as follows: « When Beatrice walks away, Dante does not let a complaint escape; all earthly residue has been burnt in him and destroyed. »
But this interpretation is false, says Borgès. Nothing has been destroyed, and all the « horror » of the situation is contained in the expression: « so far away that she seemed ».
The smile seems close, like the last glance, but Beatrice is in fact so far away that she becomes forever inaccessible, once again sending Dante back to his solitude.
I would like to propose yet another interpretation, which has nothing romantic about it, but rather aims at metaphysics. Dante’s love for Beatrice, however high it may be, is only a metaphor, it seems to me. Beatrice died in 1290, and Dante wrote The Divine Comedy from 1307 to 1321. The last pages, the very ones that are commented on here, were therefore written more than thirty years after the death of the beloved.
For Dante, the Beatrice in The Divine Comedy is a figure, an image, a trope, a vision at last, which refers not to the memory of a certain Florentine of the Middle Ages, but to his own soul.
Dante is not guided by the appearance of an imaginary and inaccessible Beatrice, descended from the Empyrean, but by his soul, which brings her back to life and is inspired by her.
Dante’s soul, at the end of his quest, is already burning with divine fire. Suddenly, he sees her moving away. She separates from him. She leaves him! But Dante is not dead. He has crossed Hell, Purgatory and here he is in the Empyrean. He is alive, like Aeneas, Orpheus, and other explorers of the beyond. Not being dead, Dante’s soul is still united to his body. And yet she rises, on the advice of Saint Bernard.
Like Dante’s, from now on my words will be « short compared to what I remember ».
O how little is enough to say! How the look afterwards laughs! I myself was bound in the night to this eternal view, and « for this flight my wing was too weak ». My wing, yes, but not my soul.
O Dante! Hail to thee through the ages. You have given me the strength to say again, in veiled words, what you proclaim in incandescent verses! Your « high fantasy » has lost none of its power! You have propelled my desire through the ages like a wheel wider than any world!
The Song of songs, at the core of the Hebraic Bible, has accustomed the faithful, in Judaism and in Christianity, to the idea that the celebration of love, with human words and not without quite crude images, could also be a metaphor for the Love between the soul and God.
However, this very idea can also be found in the Veda, – with an anteriority of at least one thousand years over the Bible. This incites us to consider why, for so many millennia, persisted the metaphor of human love as applied to the union of the human soul with the Divinity.
The Veda is the oldest text, conserved for the benefit of mankind, that testifies to the idea of the Divinity’s love for the human soul, – as improbable as it may be thought, considering the nothingness of the latter.
« As the creeper holds the tree embraced through and through, so embrace me, be my lover, and do not depart from me! As the eagle strikes the ground with its two wings, so I strike your soul, be my lover and do not depart from me! As the sun on the same day surrounds heaven and earth, so do I surround your soul. Be my lover and do not depart from me! Desire my body, my feet, desire my thighs; let your eyes, your hair, in love, be consumed with passion for me!”i
A comparative anthropology of the depths is possible. Its main advantage is that it allows us to give some relativity to much later, idiosyncratic and ‘provincial’ assertions, and above all to confirm the fruitfulness of research into the very essence of common human intuition.
This research is one of the bases of the Future Dream, whose’ absence crushed, wounded modernity suffers so much from.
More than thousand years before the Gospel of John, the Veda was already considering the Word as having a life of its own, a divine essence. The Vedic Word was a Divine Person. The Vedic Word was a prefiguration of the Psalms of David where, as in the Veda, Wisdom is personified as a female figure associated with the One God.
The Word (vāc) is the very essence of the Veda. « More than one who sees has not seen the Word. More than one who hears does not hear it. She has opened her body to him as she did to her husband, a loving woman in rich attire.”i
The Word, or Wisdom, or Vāc, is like the loving Sulamite of the Song of songs.
Towards the end of the 19th century, Europe believed it dominated the world, through its techniques, empires and colonies. But the poet Mallarmé was already feeling desperate for the crisis of the mind. He noted, bitterly, that “mankind had not created new myths”, and that, for the field that most concerned him, “the dramatic art of our time, vast, sublime, almost religious, is yet to be found.”i
Mallarmé said he was in search of the « pure myth », of « the Figure that None is” (la Figure que Nul n’est ). He believed it was possible to find such a myth, by summoning « the immortal, innate delicacies and magnificences which are unbeknownst to all in the contest of a mute assistance.”ii
He took as his theoretical model, as a perfect paradigm, for this improbable and yet to be found myth, the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, and its obscure depth.
Mallarmé saw in Orpheus the creative power, solar energy, and « the idea of the morning with its short-lived beauty ». He recalled that the name Orpheus comes from the Sanskrit Ribhu, the « sun », a name that the Vedas often use to describe the divine, in its various forms. Eurydice, whose name is close to that of Europe, or Euryphassa, means, according to Mallarmé, « the vast gush of dawn in the sky ». The serpent that bites Eurydice and kills her is nothing more than the serpent of darkness that puts an end to the twilight.
The descent from Orpheus to the Underworld is therefore an image of the passage from day to night. “The pilgrimage of Orpheus represents the journey that, during the hours of the night, the Sun passed by to accomplish, in order to bring back, in the morning, the Dawn, whose disappearance it causes by its dazzling splendour.”iii
In this interpretation, the myth of Orpheus probably originally refers to the voyage of Ra in the sacred boat, celebrated by ancient Egypt.
But it must also be recognized that the myth of Orpheus is not meteorological, and that it says something other than the dissolution of the dawn by the morning ray.
Isn’t Orpheus the poet par excellence, in charge of the mystery itself? Mallarmé knows it well, who saw no higher task than poetry.
« Poetry is the expression, through human language brought back to its essential rhythm, of the mysterious meaning of the aspects of existence: it endows our stay with authenticity and is the only spiritual task.”iv
Mallarmé had a religious soul. He had a great dream, that of finding the origin of the Dream. This is evidenced by this text published after his death in an obituary:
« The Theatre is the confrontation of the Dream with the crowd and the disclosure of the Book, which drew its origin and is restored there. I believe that it will remain the great Human Festival; and what is dying is its counterfeiting and lying.”v
Incorrigible optimist, I also believe in the great Human Festival yet to be seen, but we may have to wait. Before its lights and beams, how many more dark periods will humanity have to endure?
What is striking about Mallarmé’s formula is that it establishes in its cryptic way, it seems to me, and this long before Freud’s iconoclastic theories, a hidden link between Egypt and Israel, between Akhenaten and Moses.
I am incited to see in Moses a man of the great World Theatre, a man who admirably and courageously confronted the « crowd », to impose his Dream (and finally to make Akhenaten’s One God live) and deliver his Book.
But, by contrast, it also brings to light the flagrant absence of a Myth today.
Admittedly, some religions, including the three monotheisms, and Buddhism, hold the upper hand from the point of view of international agit-prop, but it would no doubt be an insult to them to consider them as pure « myths ». Having no taste for vain martyrdom, I will not go looking for any leads in this direction, refusing in advance to confront the zealots and other guardians of the sacred dens.
If the myth of Orpheus prefigures in its own way the descent into the Christic underworld, if Akhenaten is the tutelary figure of the Mosaic God, they are also proof by induction of the power of ideas through the ages.
One key question remains: What myth does the whole of modernity, globalized modernity, strangled in a cramped and overpopulated, violent and oh so unequal planet, now need?
The bottom line is that modern religions (which have lost almost all connection with the original meaning of ancient religions) are part of the problem much more than the solution.
Ancient peoples knew that the Gods have many names, but that the mystery remains unique – and this long before Moses decided to export to the Sinai, with the success we know, the « counter-religion » that Akhenaten had failed to impose in Egypt.
A new world myth, tomorrow, will have to put an end to common hatred, general exclusion, and the idolatry of difference. It will also have to go beyond what Jan Assmann calls the « Mosaic Distinction »vi.
The new world myth, tomorrow, will have to blossom into a World Dream, for everyone to see, to hear, to taste, to feel, to smell, – and to imagine.
The World Dream will not be renewed dreams of modern Babel towers, but the Dream of an Adamic ziggurat, – ochre of consciousness, red with human humus. Red, not of blood, but of the flesh and the breathe of the primal Adam.
For the future of Mankind may well be hidden, like a remembrance of its lost paradise, in a new World Garden.
Every language has its genius, their words have their power, their potency. One speaks them without really knowing them. One grazes their abysses, fly over their peaks, ignoring their heaps of secrets.
Our languages tell us that we are enigmas to ourselves.
Perhaps two examples will shed some light on the far-reaching implications of this unconscious of languages.
The Hebrew verb נָהַר (nāhar) means ‘to shine, to radiate with joy’, as in Is 60:5 (“Then you will look and be radiant”i). A derived word נָהָר (nāhār) means « stream, river ». In feminine form, this word becomes נָהָרָה (nāhārā) and means « light ». And in a different vocalization, attested in Chaldean, נָהִירוּ (nāhiru) means « wisdom ».
This word, therefore, may incarnate unto itself light, joy, a river – and wisdom!
Curiously, the Greek language also has words that bring together the meaning of light, the idea of joy and the brilliance of water. A verse from Aeschylus in the Prometheus in chains sings « the countless smile of the sea waves » (ποντίων τε κυμάτων άνήριθμον γέλασμα).
Another example highlights the intrinsic capacity of a word to bear witness to the dream of the whole language, and of those who speak it. Thus the verb עָלַם (‘alam) means « to hide, to be ignored ». As a noun, the same word עָלַם means ‘eternity’. One would like to ask: does this word incite to think that eternity is ‘hidden’? Or that ignorance is ‘eternal’?
In another vocalization, the same word means ‘world’. But perhaps even most beautifully, the word , in yet another vocalization (‘elem), means ‘child’.
Again the mind wanders… Is the world a veiled child? Does a child hide his eternity? Does eternity veil and hidden childhood? Is the veil the eternal childhood of the world?
A thousand possible thoughts arise from just one word. Languages, all of them, abound with simple surprises, disconcerting shifts, and forgotten nuggets. Yet they bear witness to a dream, they testify that the smallest word is linked to untold mysteries.
« And the evening and the morning were the first day.”i
« And the evening and the morning were the second day.”ii
« And the evening and the morning were the third day.”iii
However, the sun was not created until the fourth day of the Creation! During the first half of the six days of the Creation, there was no sun, yet there was light and darkness…
What were those « mornings » and « evenings » really like, when the sun was not yet created? Were they only metaphors? Symbols? Images?
One could speculate that these « mornings » (without sun) could be a colourful, metaphoric, way of describing the dawn of things, their principle, their idea, their essence.
And continuing on this train of thoughts, the « evenings » – which came before the « mornings », in the Book of Genesis – could then represent the knowledge that precedes principles, ideas, – the obscure knowledge that precedes the dawn of the understanding, the dawn of the essence of things.
The « evenings » would then confusingly embody all that announces things yet to be created, in advance, all that prepares them in secret, makes them possible and compatible with matter, life, reality.
The « evening knowledge » may represent the knowledge of things as they subsist, latent, in their own nature, immersed in a slowly emerging consciousness, that is still formless.
And when the « morning » comes, then appears the « morning knowledge », the knowledge of the primordial nature of beings, their true, luminous, essence.
A lion, an eagle or a squid, live their own unique life in the steppe, the sky or the sea. Who will tell the unique experience of this particular lion, this singular eagle, this specific squid? Who will bundle them with ‘sensors’ from birth to death, observe their entire life, grasp all their perceptions, understand the full range of their emotions, their fears, their pleasures, and acquire their grammar, their vocabulary?
Plato invented the idea of “the idea”. We may then imagine that there is such a thing as the “idea” of the tiger, its very essence, the “tiger-dom”. But even if we could grasp the essence of the generic tiger, what about the essence of aspecific tiger?
To access the « morning knowledge » of the tiger, one would also have to be capable of abstraction, to penetrate its essence, to understanding the paradigm at work.
But, even more difficult maybe, one would also have to be a very zealous observer, endowed with empathy, sensitivity, and encyclopedic patience, to claim the « evening knowledge » of this or that particular tiger.
One should ideally strive to be able to grasp at the same time, not only the “tiger-dom” in general, but the unique “tiger-dom” of this or that particular tiger.
In a sense, a specific tiger may well represent its species. But from another perspective, an individual tiger remains deeply immersed in its own, opaque, singularity. It can never represent the sum total of the life experiences of its fellow tigers of past and future times. One tiger virtually sums up the species, one can admit, but is also overwhelmed on all sides by the innumerable lives of other, real tigers.
During the first days of the Genesis, and before the sun was even created, three evenings and three mornings benefited from a non-solar “light”, a “light” without photons, but not without enlightenment, – a non material “light”, but not without “ideas”…
During those first three days and nights, in the absence of the sun, we can infer that were crated many other (unspeakable) “suns” that were never before seen, and many other unheard-of and unspeakable “moons”.
« If a lion could speak we could not understand him », wrote Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations.
This remark is worthy of consideration… and of generalization. What if it were a tuna, — or a rattlesnake nest, or a flight of starlings? Or a pile of dust, a block of granite, a cluster of galaxies? Or a prion, a plasmid, a proton? An angel, a seraphim, — or even God?
If God would speak, now, could we understand Him, more than a virus?
Is there any serious chance, after all, that we could just figure out, or somewhat understand, in any way, what is not human?
To start with, do we even understand what it really means to be human?
Pessimism usually prevails in this sort of metaphysical questioning. Leonine grammar is probably simpler than the Greek or the Sanskrit ones.
But these are probably much simpler than a seraphic one.
What is the worldview of the lion ? The crushing of the jaws ? The raw smell of blood, the subtle scent of the steppe?
What about the unfulfilled dreams of the fly, or the vulture, over the corpses? What about the ontological worries of the photon, lost in (relativist) translations?
What about the angel’s sorrow? And what about cherubinic rejoicing?
Isn’t all this, irremediably, out of syntax, out of any human lexicon?
If a million future Champollions tried to decipher, during one million years, the roar of the feline, or to decrypt the vibrato of the lizard, would there be any hope of breaking new grounds? Could we not, one day, find some Rosetta Stone translating equivalences among all the living entities, here on earth, and beyond?
Perhaps one day, we will find such powerful, universal, paradigmatic Babelian stones. Who knows? Who can tell?
Let’s make it simple. We should start by simply trying to understand men and women when they speak, or when they keep silent.
If we could really understand their silence, then perhaps we would better understand things that we still do not understand in the universe, — and perhaps we would get an unhinged glimpse at its core, silent, meaning?
Human speech is continuously made of virtual palimpsests. But these are ignored, — and they stay buried, hidden, impotent, powerless.
Human words have dark or shiny reflections, shimmering with a latent, interior, fire, — sometimes striken by an unexpected, unhoped-for, light of meaning, yet vigorously smouldering under the ashes.