I saw myself a ring of bone . . . allowing ourselves to be struck by the world

Transit of Venus viewed from Woodstock, Maryland
Last week, I guess like many people around the world, I was sitting at my computer for a time captivated by the transit of Venus across the face of the sun, the last time this will occur for 105 years. For centuries past it inspired awe not least of all because it was wrapped up with the mysterious workings of the gods. We must not forget that until relatively recently in human history the Sun and the planets were not what we might call "natural facts" of the universe but gods - in Celtic cultures the sun was known as "Bel" (meaning "shining") and in later Greco-Romano culture, as "Sol" or "Helios." Venus was, of course, named after the Roman goddess of love and beauty. Though awe-inspiringly powerful, independent, and always wilful, these gods and goddesses were forces with whom, in some measure meet, we could communicate and, from time to time, perhaps even propitiate. Our relationship with them could be said to be, in some way, personal.

Although vestiges of this religious awe remain, today it is an inspiring event for us mostly for naturalistic, scientific reasons. The mystery and wonder of a personal encounter with the gods has been driven out in favour of aw(e)ful (pun intended) knowledge of a universe governed by reliable and, to a great extent, predictable physical laws.

As I leaned back from my computer and mused on this well known trope for our age I realised that although in earlier times one might meaningfully have been happy or angry with the ways of the gods Sol and Venus as one stands today before natural objects of the universe, it makes no sense at all for us to be angry at their ways. This thought immediately led me to recall a poem published by Robinson Jeffers called "Be Angry at the Sun":

That public men publish falsehoods
Is nothing new. That America must accept
Like the historical republics corruption and empire
Has been known for years.

Be angry at the sun for setting
If these things anger you. Watch the wheel slope and turn,
They are all bound on the wheel, these people, those warriors.
This republic, Europe, Asia.

Observe them gesticulating,
Observe them going down. The gang serves lies, the passionate
Man plays his part; the cold passion for truth
Hunts in no pack.

You are not Catullus, you know,
To lampoon these crude sketches of Caesar. You are far
From Dante's feet, but even farther from his dirty
Political hatreds.

Let boys want pleasure, and men
Struggle for power, and women perhaps for fame,
And the servile to serve a Leader and the dupes to be duped.
Yours is not theirs.

Turning away from the NASA website and, via the BBC News website, towards the world of humankind I was left in little doubt that Jeffers had a point because, alongside the story of the transit, which was graced with beautiful pictures of Venus passing in front of the fiery Sun, there were countless other stories which spoke of "public man's" many falsehoods, corruptions, hatreds and violence. In all the centuries humankind has been able to look up at Venus cross the Sun it has never ceased to be filled with men and women who, wishing for pleasure, power and fame, will lie, spread hate and kill. Reading the terrible litany of the BBC News page one cannot but help think Jeffers seems to be right in suggesting that this feels like the action of the same unchangeable natural laws that govern the physical universe - after all we, too, are part of this universe; could we really expect things to be otherwise? Ergo, we should not to get angry about this natural "fact" about our ourselves just as we should not get angry about the sun.

But as I scrolled through the headlines I found it impossible not to feel anger about the violence of the Assad regime in Syria, anger about the financial greed and corruption that is so threatening global stability, anger about the misuse of the world's natural resources and the associated fact of pollution, and anger about so much more besides. However, I don't think Jeffers is suggesting we shouldn't be angry nor seek to change these things, rather he is reminding us not to waste precious time and energy on futile anger. He's concerned instead to encourage us to remember that we follow another way, a way that, as he suggests in his final line, is not the way of the "public men". In this poem I think he's teaching us something that was wittily, if necessarily darkly, summed up by the French eighteenth-century writer Sébastien-Roch Nicolas (1741–1794) otherwise known as Chamfort:

"If you want to become a philosopher you mustn't allow yourself to be put off by your first unpleasant discoveries about the human race. To learn about mankind, you have to ignore the disappointments they cause you, just as an anatomist needs to overcome his initial disgust and ignore his own organs in order to learn the necessary skills to practise his art" (trans. Douglas Parmée).

If we are going to live a different way - and learn this way's necessary skills - then we clearly need to live in frank acknowledgement of human frailty and humankind's ever present propensity to evil and destructive behaviour. With that thought I judged it was time to turn off the computer.

I sat back in my chair and my mind began turning over the perennial question of just what is, or might be, "our way"? The lateness of the hour and my tiredness drove me first to thoughts of quiet retreat and contemplation because it's so hard to tackle this question well when all one can hear is the din of public man's stupidity - a stupidity in which I am, and all of us are, complicit from time to time. Anyway, most of my own literary and philosophical heroes are those who did their best thinking about such questions in retreat - Thoreau went to his hut in the woods, Nietzsche went to a quiet house Sils-Maria to walk in the Alps, Wittgenstein built a hut on a mountainside in Skjolden, Norway whilst Heidegger built his in the Black Forest at Todtnauberg. So, too, did one of my favourite poets Lew Welch - his hut was in the woods of the Sierra Nevada mountains, California where, in 1963/1964, he wrote a small collection he eventually called "Hermit Poems." Lew's work seemed relevant at this point in my thinking because he was quite capable of the kinds of destructive behaviour carried out by "public men" of which Jeffers had spoken. Years of drinking, depression and failure to find success as a poet led to some very bad, very dark years. His retreat to the woods was an attempt to clean up and start anew. So I leant over and pulled Lew's Collected Poems (A new edition is to be published in July) down from the shelf and read:

Atlas vertebra superior sight
I saw myself
a ring of bone
in the clear stream
of all of it

and vowed
always to be open to it
that all of it
might flow through

and then heard
"ring of bone" where
ring is what a

bell does

(You can hear Lew Welch recite this poem at the Penn Sound webpage. He also reads it on CD4 of the collection Howls, Raps and Roars - Recordings from the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance)

An Enso - "Zen Circle"
In the morning Lew would wash in a spring near his hut. In one of the other poems written at the same time ("Not yet forty") he tells us that, on occasion, he used to stick his head right into the water and look around at the pebbles. On this day it seems that, as he looked around, he saw a ring of bone - the vertebra of some dead animal lying there on the spring bed (I think he also had in mind that this ring of bone resembled the Ensō the circle closely associated with Zen). Of the living and dying of all creatures there is, of course, no end - a natural fact of life about which, like the movement of the planets, one simply cannot be angry or happy about. Lew clearly feels neither and instead he simply, and suddenly, sees himself as that ring of bone, utterly commingled, not only in this spring at the head of a mountain stream, but in the flow of everything - the same flow that moves the stream and the Sun and Venus. Though this kind of thought has had mystical connotations it seems to me that Lew knew that this, too, is really just a natural fact, one which he could notice but never change. Consequently, his seeing of this is not, I think, the thing towards which Lew wants to gesture to in this poem. Instead I think it is seen when he draws our attention to the one thing we can change, namely our willingness to be open to the natural facts of the world and of allowing them to push back so that they, almost literally, can be said to strike us and set us resonating in the world differently so as to be nudged in a new direction of looking and travel.

It is this act of opening up that allows him to be wonder-struck and to be caused to look up and away from his old destructive ways of being as a kind of "public man" and to resonate or ring, in the world in a new way. His own "ringing" is transmitted to us in his poems and, as their sound continues to ripple out into the world, they now and then will strike one reader or another and cause them to look up and to be nudged away from their own old destructive ways of being and towards a new direction of looking and travel.

I realised that in allowing myself to read Lew's poems (read anything in fact) they become themselves new kinds of natural facts capable of striking us and setting us ringing anew just like rings of bone, stars and planets.

This ringing, this being struck by the wonder of natural facts and being nudged by them in new directions of looking and travel seems to me to be deeply resonant with the methods of teaching pursued by Jesus - my own and this tradition's distinctive religious teacher. He was always concerned to teach in a way that encouraged people to be struck by some natural fact such that they would look up, be set ringing differently and nudged away from their former destructive ways of being "public men" and towards new directions of looking and travel.

He constantly called upon us to look and consider at such natural facts whether they be birds of the air, lilies of the field, mustard seeds, leaven, hidden treasure, pearls, lost sheep, lost coins, lost (prodigal) sons, faithful servants, ten virgins, tares, rich fools, budding or barren fig trees, unforgiving servants, Good Samaritans and friends at night. These parables are not in themselves answers - answers are in fact not the point - they are designed to strike us and make us wonder, "how on earth is the kingdom of heaven like this?", to set our own lives ringing in new, creative, non-destructive ways.

It seems to me we will never be able to stop for all time "public men" falling into their destructive ways of being. But what we can do, is pursue "our way" which is always be cultivating amongst ourselves practices that can open ourselves and others to the natural facts of the world (which as I have suggested I think includes poetry and the other arts) such that we and those around us are struck by them and set ringing, natural facts that make us look up with wonder and which can change our direction helping us to see that there is another way, something better.

So, please risk being that "ring of bone - where ring is what a bell does" for it is nothing less than "our way" - a way which can remind the human world it can change and even, in some measure, achieve salvation.


After finishing this address I turned my attention towards Ernst Fischer (1899–1972), the Austrian Marxist journalist, writer and politician whose most famous book was "The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach" which has just recently been re-published by Verso Press and which I've been meaning to read for a while. Below are two well-known quotes of his (both, I think, from this book - something I'll check as I read it in the coming weeks) that connect with an underlying theme of my address printed above. It seems worth adding Fischer's words here as provocations to further thought:

"Art is necessary in order that man should be able to recognize and change the world. But art is also necessary by virtue of the magic inherent in it."

"In a decaying society, art, if it is truthful, must also reflect decay. And unless it wants to break faith with its social function, art must show the world as changeable. And help to change it."


Dana said…
I will have to print this and read it; I just can't read something online and think about it at the same time. But I recommend Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon, about their measuring the Mason & Dixon line in the Americas (and about observing the Transit of Venus). I love that book...or I loved it 10 years ago. I wonder what I'd think now! I just re-read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, having been intrigued, mystified, and attracted to it in high school. It seemed both simpler and more complex now, but almost as excellent.