A new-materialist meditation woven around four poems by Lucretius, A. R. Ammons, Joseph Blanco White, and Mary Oliver—‘It is only enough to touch the inner light of each surrounding thing and hope it will itself be stirred to radiance’

Two Motions: I by A. R. Ammons (1966)

It is not enough to be willing to come out of the dark 
         and stand in the light, 
all hidden things brought into sight, the damp 
    black spaces, 
where fear, arms over its head, trembles into blindness, 
          invaded by truth-seeking light: 
it is not enough to desire radiance, to be struck by 
    radiance: external light 
throws darkness behind its brilliance, the division 
      nearly half and half: 
it is only enough when the inner light 
    kindles to a source, radiates from its sphere to all 
points outwardly: then, though 
         surrounding things are half and half with 
light and darkness, all that is visible from the source 
    is light: 
it is not enough to wish to cast light: as much 
         darkness as light is made that way: it is only 
enough to touch the inner light of each surrounding thing 
and hope it will itself be stirred to radiance, 
eliminating the shadows that all lights give it, 
         and realizing its own full sphere: 
it is only enough to radiate the sufficient light within, 
the constant source, the light beyond all possibility of night. 

—o0o—

Lucretius thought that fears and shadows will be dispersed:

Not by the illumination of the sun and its bright rays,
But by observing Nature’s laws and looking on her face.

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura Bk 3.91-93

—o0o—

A new-materialist meditation woven around four poems by Lucretius, A. R. Ammons, Joseph Blanco Whiteand Mary Oliver—‘It is only enough to touch the inner light of each surrounding thing and hope it will itself be stirred to radiance

A moment of quiet refection above Grantchester Meadows on Friday morning 
We all depend on what Richard Rorty called ‘illuminating vocabularies’ to help us understand the world and our part in it. Once upon a time we thought these illuminating vocabularies really did (or, in principle could) accurately, and in toto, describe the world as it is, ‘out there’. But, in more recent years, all kinds of developments have helped us see that every illuminating vocabulary is only contingently useful and that there are always different (and sometimes apparently or actually conflicting) vocabularies we can use to describe any given phenomenon or state of affairs.

My favourite, more or less benign and uncontroversial example of this, was provided by the astronomer, physicist, mathematician and Quaker, Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington. In Chapter XV of his 1928 Gifford Lectures he describes being occupied at various times with the subject of ‘Generation of Waves by Wind.’ As a scientist he knew that when it comes to the phenomenon of waves one illuminating vocabulary he can deploy is that articulated by hydrodynamics, a subdiscipline of fluid mechanics. Given this, Eddington tells us that his reverie caused him to take down from his bookshelves Horace Lamb’s then current standard treatise on the matter (Lamb had been one of his own teachers). After presenting us with some of the actual equations involved, Eddington tells us it becomes

‘. . . clear that a wind of less than half a mile an hour will leave the surface unruffled. At a mile an hour the surface is covered with minute corrugations due to capillary waves which decay immediately the disturbing cause ceases. At two miles an hour the gravity waves appear.’ Eddington concludes by saying, ‘As the author [i.e. Lamb] modestly concludes, “Our theoretical investigations give considerable insight into the incipient stages of wave-formation”.’  

So far so illuminating. But Eddington immediately goes on to tell us of another time when he was also contemplating the subject of the ‘Generation of Waves by Wind.’ However, on this occasion, he felt that the appropriate illuminating vocabulary to use was not that of hydrodynamics but the poetic vocabulary deployed by Rupert Brooke (1887-1915) in his poem called ‘The Dead’:

There are waters blown by changing winds to laughter 
And lit by the rich skies, all day. And after, 
Frost, with a gesture, stays the waves that dance 
And wandering loveliness. He leaves a white 
Unbroken glory, a gathered radiance, 
A width, a shining peace, under the night.

Eddington then tells us the following:

‘The magic words bring back the scene. Again we feel Nature drawing close to us, uniting with us, till we are filled with the gladness of the waves dancing in the sunshine, with the awe of the moonlight on the frozen lake. These were not moments when we fell below ourselves. We do not look back on them and say, “It was disgraceful for a man with six sober senses and a scientific understanding to let himself be deluded in that way. I will take Lamb’s Hydrodynamics with me next time”. It is good that there should be such moments for us. Life would be stunted and narrow if we could feel no significance in the world around us beyond that which can be weighed and measured with the tools of the physicist or described by the metrical symbols of the mathematician.’

As I say, this example is fairly benign and non-controversial and I imagine there will be no one reading this piece who thinks that either the illuminating vocabulary of hydrodynamics or that of Book’s poetry could, alone, ever fully do the job of saying clearly everything that needs, or could be said about waves, their formation and our intra-actions with them. (To watch a short, three minute long explainer video about intra-action, please scroll to the end of this post).

But despite this general recognition there remains in the human species a problematic desire for the existence of a single illuminating vocabulary that is, somehow, capable of lighting up everything clearly and evenly for us. This desire seems to be found (either latently or actively) in pretty much everyone I have ever met but we, in the liberal tradition, are particularly infected by this thought because we are children of the seventeen and eighteenth Enlightenment — the clue is in the name. We have grown up thinking that the clear light of reason and truth would, in time, be able to shine an even light on our often dark world and chase away all the dark, fear inducing shadows we see here, especially the shadows caused by superstition and what we wont to call ‘unreasoned’ prejudice. We thought — and still tend to believe — that once people had ‘seen the light’ — had become ‘enlightened’ — then they would, entirely of their own volition, simply see what we saw and so together, peaceably and reasonably, we would begin to walk into our destined, shared, utopian future. I need not rehearse how this hope has been shattered, and is currently being shattered even further, by so many events in our own time.

Cambridge Unitarian Church looking west towards the organ
For us the primary symbol of the clear light of reason and truth was the external, illuminating sun and it’s bright rays. Indeed, this is one of the reasons our church building contains no stained-glass — our meeting houses and churches (when, that is, we weren’t shamelessly and foolishly aping the established Church) were designed precisely to let this external, illuminating light into very the heart of our communities without any let or hindrance. When we light a candle at the beginning of our modern services we are nearly always referencing in some fashion the same conception of light. In turn, borrowing the image from the founder of modern education Comenius (Jan Amos Komenský, 1592- 1670), our twentieth-century Czech Unitarian brothers and sisters came to see us (and the liberal church as a whole) as being like sunflowers, entities who were naturally inclined to turn towards the single external, illuminating sun of reason and truth which was and is, of course, often given the name ‘God’.

It’s an ancient, beguiling thought (which has it’s roots in Plato’s thinking) but it is one which, alas, has turned out to have been extremely unhelpful in helping us to understand how the world actually seems to work and our part in that working.

In the first-century BCE Lucretius was one of the first people to realise this and his poem, On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura), was written as an explicit attempt to illuminate for the reader the material conditions (ratio) for nature as it sensuously appears (species) — naturae species ratioque.

The ‘light’ Lucretius deploys is not an insight into the nature of things (things which we might imagine could be lit up by some external light) but an insight into the nature of things. In other words Lucretius hopes to help us grasp that ‘[n]ature is not made of things . . . but things themselves are made of more primary nature which is irreducible to the sum total of invisible things’ (Thomas Nail: Lucretius I, Edinburgh University Press, 2018, p. 22). It is important to see that the light of the sun (or of Enlightenment reason and truth) is itself is as dependent upon this nature as is everything else and, therefore, it cannot be the kind of illumination Lucretius thinks he has experienced and wants to share with us — his ‘light’ (figuratively speaking) is an understanding of the material conditions (ratio) required for the sensuous appearance (species) of light and, indeed, for the sensuous appearance of any and every thing. But we need to be acutely aware that the conditions (ratio) cannot be seen in themselves but always and only known through the sensuous appearance (species) of things (including ourselves) that are constantly being woven and unwoven by those same conditions.

What is revealed by Lucretius’ ‘light’ is not, therefore, a ‘thing’ (even a huge, ‘substance/thing’ like Spinoza’s ‘God-or-Nature’ (deus sive natura) but, instead, a wholly immanent, indeterminate, iterative process that is eternally generating the complex, plural, intra-acting world of things that sensuously appear to us. In his poem Lucretius is constantly seeking to helps us understand that we are sensuously immersed in (and are fully part of and intra-acting with) a wholly material world that is always-already moving beyond itself and, therefore, it is a world which can never be considered as some kind of complete, total or finished ‘thing’ that could ever be illuminated totally and clearly by any kind of single, bright, external light.

But I realise that to insist on only putting things in this way is to deploy an illuminating, philosophically influenced vocabulary that many of you will find very far from illuminating!

To my knowledge there is no modern author who has better and more accessibly explored this thought than the poet A. R. Ammons whose work I have brought before you many times before (for example HERE). It is not insignificant in this context to note that he has been described as being America’s Lucretius. In his poem Two Motions: I Ammons firstly offers us two, initial, interconnected thoughts as to why the idea of a single, external illuminating light is not enough:

It is not enough to be willing to come out of the dark 
         and stand in the light, 
all hidden things brought into sight, the damp 
    black spaces, 
where fear, arms over its head, trembles into blindness, 
          invaded by truth-seeking light: 
it is not enough to desire radiance, to be struck by 
    radiance: external light 
throws darkness behind its brilliance, the division 
      nearly half and half: 

We all know from everyday experience that bright light, far from illuminating all things, always threatens either to bring about blindness or encourages in us a desire to scuttle away from the brightness and back into the shadows. As the wonderful and rightly famous sonnet, ‘Night and Death’, written by Joseph Blanco White (1775–1841) puts it, we can all fully comprehend how easily the light deceives and serves to create its own darkness:

MYSTERIOUS Night! when our first Parent knew
  Thee, from report divine, and heard thy name,
  Did he not tremble for this lovely Frame,
  This glorious canopy of Light and Blue?
Yet ’neath a curtain of translucent dew,
  Bathed in the rays of the great setting Flame,
  Hesperus with the Host of Heaven came,
  And lo! Creation widened on Man’s view.
Who could have thought such Darkness lay concealed
  Within thy beams, O Sun! or who could find,
  Whilst flower, and leaf, and insect stood revealed,
  That to such countless Orbs thou mad’st us blind!
Why do we then shun Death with anxious strife?
  If Light can thus deceive, wherefore not Life?  

In some way or another every external light will always concealing (or at least throwing into dark shadow) at least as much as it reveals. This everyday phenomenon helps us see that our desire for an external light (or illuminating vocabulary) which can drive away all shadows and fears and give us total enlightenment is doomed from the start. Instead we need to find ways to seek a kind of ‘light’ that can help us understand the material conditions (ratio) for the sensuous appearance (species) of nature (including light and dark together) as it endlessly weaves into new forms its yin and yang-like dance.  

Ammons continues:

it is only enough when the inner light 
    kindles to a source, radiates from its sphere to all 
points outwardly: then, though 
         surrounding things are half and half with 
light and darkness, all that is visible from the source 
    is light: 

Here, using familiar terms we often use in religious and philosophical settings, Ammons begins to point to the kind of illumination which comes to many of us when we begin to pay attention to the sensuous appearance of nature in the form of our ‘own’ life and the things ‘surrounding’ us. It is that ‘enlightening’ moment when we suddenly intuit that everything, but everything, is somehow radiating ‘out’ from what we are tempted to call a single ‘source’; astonishingly it’s a radiating ‘light’ which, unlike sunlight, doesn’t obscure the light and darkness but which still leaves the surrounding things half and half with light and darkness.

By noting this latter point Ammons gives us a preliminary indication that he knows there is a problem with the familiar language he’s deploying here. The problem is that the words ‘inner’, ‘sphere’ and ‘source’ suggest that the light about which Ammons is talking — and which I, following Lucretius and Thomas Nail, am calling ‘the material conditions for nature as it sensuously appears’ — is somehow static and that emanates from some fixed place other than our own world. But I think Ammons uses this language first of all because it is the way our culture has taught us to talk about this ‘feeling’ — we read Ammons words and many of us using our inherited language can say, ‘Yes! I, too, have felt something like that.’ But then, suddenly, Ammons subverts all our familiar ways of using those words by saying:

it is not enough to wish to cast light: as much 
         darkness as light is made that way: 

He suddenly reveals to us that ‘light’ about which he is trying to talk is not one cast from any one place or any one thing to any other place or other thing because, were that the case, we’d be simply back where we started with external lights which cast as much shadow as they do light. This is why (or so it seems to me), that Ammons continues:

 it is only 
enough to touch the inner light of each surrounding thing 
and hope it will itself be stirred to radiance, 
eliminating the shadows that all lights give it, 
         and realizing its own full sphere: 
it is only enough to radiate the sufficient light within, 
the constant source, the light beyond all possibility of night.

Here Ammons reveals that the illumination about which he is talking is only experienced through an attentive, immersive, sensuous, intra-action with nature as it appears. This is a ‘light’ known only by us when we become aware we are fully immersed in a world in which all things are mixed, and all things are always-already touched by all other things and that it is only because of this constant, material touching and being touched that anything is able to light up as the ‘individual’ things they are. In short, every thing is ‘stirred to radiance’ by everything else and ‘the light beyond all possibility of night’ which reveals this to us is not external — like the sun, or reason, or truth, or god — but the always present, invisible material conditions of nature as it sensuously appears: naturae species ratioque.

It is perhaps something like this kind of ‘light’ that the Buddha once spoke and which Mary Oliver (who was always someone fully immersed in a world in which all things are mixed, and all things are always-already touched by all other things) put into verse in yet another poem ‘The Buddha’s Last Instruction’ :

“Make of yourself a light,”
said the Buddha,
before he died.
I think of this every morning
as the east begins
to tear off its many clouds
of darkness, to send up the first
signal – a white fan
streaked with pink and violet,
even green.
An old man, he lay down
between two sala trees,
and he might have said anything,
knowing it was his final hour.
The light burns upward,
it thickens and settles over the fields.
Around him, the villagers gathered
and stretched forward to listen.
Even before the sun itself
hangs, disattached, in the blue air,
I am touched everywhere
by its ocean of yellow waves.
No doubt he thought of everything
that had happened in his difficult life.
And then I feel the sun itself
as it blazes over the hills,
like a million flowers on fire –
clearly I’m not needed,
yet I feel myself turning
into something of inexplicable value.
Slowly, beneath the branches,
he raised his head.
He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd.

(Mary Oliver — New and Selected Poems, Vol. 1, Beacon Press, Boston 1992)

At the moment, in my work as a pastor, I’m seeing a great many more frightened faces in the crowd than only a few months ago and the only succour I can offer them — and, perhaps, that will include some readers of this post — is to be found, not in the external illumination of the sun (or god, or some eternal law or principle) and its bright rays, but only by observing the material conditions (ratio) for nature as it sensuously appears (species) and, by so doing, touching and being touched in the same moment. I have consistently found that an acknowledgment of this intra-action is, alone, capable of stirring me and all things to radiance and dispersing the fears and shadows that, from time to time, always threaten us all.


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