Monday, 21 November 2011

Reading with Vision, part 2

Here's the second part of my long essay on Vernon Watkins from 2007.

Downcast Lids

Henry Leroy Finch’s beautiful and clear-sighted study, Simone Weil and the Intellect of Grace, underlines the convergence of Weil’s thought with the visionary hermeneutics which I am attempting to develop from Watkins’s poetry here. In Waiting on God Weil suggested that our attention – visionary understanding – could be radically passive, radically female: ‘our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object which is to penetrate it’. Likewise, Weil’s own ‘messages’, Finch writes, ‘are messages of grace, received by those who wait and not by those who grasp’. Finch notes how post-Marxist Weil – like Watkins in ‘Rebirth’ – valued sacred human understanding over progressivist will and effort:

Simone Weil is the opposite of a secularist, because for her a true human culture comes from beyond the merely human. Science, art, poetry, music, philosophy, to the extent that they come unannounced to human attention waiting in patience, she calls forms of the implicit love of God; they are sacred deliverances. This is not romanticism or sentiment because it is not egotism. True making, like true doing, is not ours.

The understanding of knowledges, such as Watkins’s lyric visionary knowledges, as ‘sacred deliverances’, opens up – Finch sees – an emphasis on the common ‘vulnerability and dependence of each of us on others, which is our initial situation in the world’. Finch takes from Weil a Blakean critique of ‘masculine authority’, or of ‘the discipline of the powerful God of authority’; the sort of hierarchical, utilitarian, jobsworth discipline which, often in pseudo-feminist garb, controls today’s academic study of literature. ‘Simone Weil’s God of grace is a God divorced from power and necessity, which are after all nothing to admire and worship.’ The supernatural influence of the divine in human affairs, for Weil, is ‘decisive but subtle’ and ‘entirely beyond human control’. ‘The human principle, like Plato’s Good, has an inexorability about it too, but it is a providential one beyond natural causality. Higher dimensions show themselves only at scarcely recognizable points. This is how love makes itself felt.’

Ah dumb Piétà, fixed beneath closed eyelids,
Strong vision pledged to seek the unchanging light
Of angels, true above a changing world! [166]

Watkins’s ‘The Age-Changers’ relates a scarcely recognizable, fragmentary descent of grace, for instance through cultural artefacts, to the necessary exhaustion of youthful enquiry’s bid for visionary perception. ‘Light through downcast lids/ Is rising, where one drop of light decides.’ Watkins senses that an awareness of the sacred, light, can be launched by the adoration undertaken by the more elderly, more blind. ‘Mute wonder through the sweet, blind eyes looks out,/ Starts the sun’s memories life forgot.’ [18] In ‘The Song of the Good Samaritan’, Watkins lays out ‘a choice/ Between those visions acclaimed by pride overthrown,/ And the downcast, intimate eyes, the source of the voice.’ [148] The idea is that only baffled eyes, at sea in love, can see through lower dimensions: ‘But that disguise,/ Look up now, softly: break it with your eyes.’ [10] Another early poem notes, ‘Youth is itself infirm/ Until those sightless eyes/ Rarify youth and breath’. [21] Then the memories of illumination can begin to emerge, themselves reminiscent of the ‘transfiguring after-clarity’ of David Jones’s The Anathemata. ‘Doom’s serial writing sprang upon the wall/ Blind with a rush of light.’ [6]

Spiritual Involution

The flash we saw in the distance now becomes for us a shell,
Spun from the loom of waters to its own
Stillness, and inward music: mark it, where it fell. [350]

The springing out of ‘higher dimensions’ is twinned, in Watkins as in Blake, with a hermeneutic pursuit of grace inwards. In Jerusalem Blake recommended ‘O search & see: turn your eyes inward: open O thou World/ Of Love & Harmony in Man: expand thy ever lovely Gates.’ Where Blake projected the gates on to the city streets – ‘I write in South Molton Street, what I both see and hear/ In regions of Humanity, in Londons opening streets’ – Watkins identified them in coastal shells. Internal and external cities, still. ‘The Interval’:

It is that dark source which makes all things new
Scoops out, with changing lights, those fragile shells
Whose voice would perish, did I not pursue
Their inmost labyrinth still, to give the god his due. [277]

The continuation of the sacred voice is aided by the poet’s and the reader’s linguistic process of spiritual involution, a process which, Watkins emphasizes in ‘Swedenborg’s Skull’, leaves intact the ‘vessel of uninterrupted calm’ – just as the visionary’s grave-robbers ‘could not shake or destroy that interior psalm/ Intended for God alone, for his sole Creator.’ Hermeneutic involution becomes a developing, a complexification of the object’s calm.

So I see it today, the inscrutable mask of conception
Arrested in death. Hard, slender and grey, it transcends
The enquiring senses, even as a shell toiling inward,
Caught up from the waters of change by a traveller who bends
His piercing scrutiny, yields but a surface deception,
Still guarding the peace it defends. [247] 

When ‘the spiral dark’ is to be ‘kept, unseen’, ‘one is mute,/ Fearing far more the heresies of speech/ Than watchful waiting.’ [249, 252]

I have discerned a secret
Hid from the arc of day,
Locked in the heart of silence,
Stronger than death, and pure. [354]

The practice of hermeneutic involution distances the muted from politico-academic rhetoric.

Stop, then, and quail beneath their tyrannous eloquence,
All you, save one whose tongue is tense,
Transfigured by God with a message that has no words. [127]

Deeper than Language

‘The London writer is incapable of expressing his meaning, or escaping from it.’ Watkins’s poetic world too is dotted with those transfigured by their supernatural messages in no words. In ‘The Sinner’, ‘she had found Him, sleepless, redeeming time there,/ O deeper than language, in a circle where all was hushed’ [141]. Erinna similarly, in ‘Erinna and the Waters’, ‘sighed to recapture the music no sea could sing’ [249]. In Watkins the visionary’s expression relates to grace and fluidity, circularity: reciprocity. It relates to the senses, just as in Sinclair’s ‘A Few Hundred Yards from the Dwelling of Mr Prynne’, ‘I dip my left hand/ into Cambridge river’:

Now, if I speak, my words can belong to no book
For my fingers mingle the language of water and dove,
Ending, here at the source, the journey they took. [148]
Watkins’s sensual visionary words, which are no words because they ‘can belong to no book’, yet which follow a pilgrim’s ‘journey’ towards language, recall the new philosophy of language produced on the brink of modernism in pre-1914 central Europe. Bourgeois positivist rationalism was undercut then and there by a potent combination of what Paul Mendes-Flohr – in his editor’s introduction to the English translation of Martin Buber’s 1909 anthology of mystical writing, Ecstatic Confessions – calls ‘epistemological skepticism’ and ‘spiritual quest’. The mysticism of Expressionist poetry such as Trakl’s was matched by the mysticism of Fritz Mauthner’s pioneering critique of language. (Like so much of pre-Holocaust central European culture, Mauthner is perhaps now known, if at all, only through the canonical protocols of Benjamin reception: he is mentioned twice in Scholem’s Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship. Though Mauthner could be known to Wittgensteinians too). Happily, Mendes-Flohr cites some lines from Gustav Landauer’s précis, in his 1903 Skepsis und Mystik, of Mauthner’s thinking – Landauer had edited Mauthner’s three-volume Beiträge zu einer Kritik der Sprache [Contribution to a Critique of Language (1901-02)]. ‘Language, the intellect, cannot serve to bring the world closer to us, to transform the world in us. As a speechless part of nature, however, man transforms himself into everything, because he is contiguous with everything [“my fingers mingle the language of water and dove”]. Here begins mysticism.’

We can see how such ideas of the insufficiency of our language (which – with Watkins’s poetics – argue both that we are insufficient for language, and that language is insufficient for us), and of language’s supersession by vision inflect Buber’s introduction to Ecstatic Confessions, which holds that language ‘will never enter the realm of ecstasy, which is the realm of unity’.

The voice returned to itself round the sevenfold world
And perched on mystery. [233]

The effort has destroyed a part of the false sense of fullness within us. The divine emptiness, fuller than fullness, has come to inhabit us. [Weil]

In ‘The Death Bell’, Watkins found in Laocoön a personification of the supernatural expressive capacity of those of us who have been exhausted into uncomplaining silence by the insufficiency of our language. This capacity is one to project visionary ecstasy, ‘sublime unrest’ – as a human potentiality – if not to reach its realm through language.

He who, his strength being spent,
Still remained reticent,
Darts his sublime unrest
Into the marvelling breast
Because he did not speak.
Even thus far went the Greek. [212]

Watkins’s lyrics ask us to respect their own ‘reticent forces of rhyme’ [335].

Verse is a part of silence. I have known
Always that declamation is impure. [161]

Light Must Learn a Dying Trade

‘Fisherman’ finds in nature the sublime unrest of visionary fragments:

There are silver fish that flash before day, in the fragile moment of dawn.
I have seen them shiver before my eyes, then vanish before light shone.

These are redemptive fragments of spiritual insight, which interpretation can only gain by grace: ‘O little weights of the mind,/ O little floats to carry me up in a moment none can foretell’. As in ‘Fingernail Sunrise’, spirit-floats are liable to return to the dark; to the involution from which they emerged:

The flash we saw in the distance now becomes for us a shell,
Spun from the loom of waters to its own
Stillness, and inward music: mark it, where it fell. [350]
‘The Salmon’ hence traces visionary knowledge as ‘lost and living’. ‘A moment taken out of time, a flash along a weir,/ The light all men are chasing is lost and living here.’ [427] This poem holds a parable, which suggests that because light is in unpredictable motion, so must interpretation be similarly fugitive. As Sinclair puts it in ‘Walking up Walls’, ‘ATAQUE GRAVE. AS A MUGGER YOU ARE NEVER SAFE. It doesn’t matter who you are, who you think you are, the trick is: never, ever, stay still.’

And waiting for the salmon-flash, to steal immortal life,
An old man crouched beside the pool with net and sharpened knife
Till all his life had ebbed away. He slept and woke in tears,
Knowing he’d missed the little splash that might renew the years. [428]

The argument is that you can be still, but not when static, with sharpened knife. A reader’s harmless stillness enabling the reception of vision, that matches the reticence or silence from which the poet projects sublime unrest, is the grace surrounding a hermeneutic process – what ‘The Turning of the Stars’ calls ‘the love that guards this book’ [161]. In ‘Beckton Alp’ Sinclair wrote of a ‘breathing space’; of how ‘the point of a good view is that it should capture, and give relief from, the journey that led up to it. There are no good views in isolation. No empty frames. Unwalked, uncycled. Unearned. View is always an accident, a breathing space.’ Watkins’s ‘The Debt’ touches on this notion of rewarded process, or relieved struggle; here Watkins proposes a spiritual economy of exhaustion ‘where sacrifices race/ And leave a fuller mind.’

Vision bequeaths a sum
Increased by spending it.
Poor if I first become,
My gain is infinite.

But when did I divine
That what was fugitive,
Like water in a mine,
Alone could make it live? [413]

As ‘Logos’ has it, ‘light must learn a dying trade’ [427].

More next week.

No comments:

Post a Comment