An Archeologist of Morning — some thoughts on Charles Olson, Thoreau and Jesus and the question of who Unitarians are and what they do

Summer, Charles Olson in hayfields.
Taken 1945 in Virginia, by Murray Morgan or his wife, Rosa.
In July 2016 a more fully developed version of the idea at the heart of this address became part of a presentation I gave to the annual Sea of Faith conference in Leicester. If you would like to read that please click on the following link.

The freedom to be tomorrow what we are not today—becoming Free Spirits and Archeologists of Morning

Readings: Matthew 25:14-28 (we used John Dominic Crossan's version of this which you can find at the end of this post)

Charles Olson (1910-1970) from “The Present is Prologue” in Collected Prose eds. Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander, University of California Press 1997 p. 205-207:

My shift is that I take it the present is prologue, not the past. The instant, therefore, is its own interpretation, as a dream is, and any action — a poem, for example. Down with causation . . . And yrself (sic): you, as the only reader and mover of the instant. You, the cause. No drag allowed, on either. Get on with it.

In the work and dogmas are: (1) How by form, to get the content instant; (2) what any of us are by the work on ourself, how to make ourself fit instruments for use (how we augment the given — what used to be called our fate); (3) that there is no such thing as duality either of the body and the soul or of the world and I, that the fact in the human universe is the discharge of the many (the multiple) by the one (yrself (sic) done right, whatever you are, in whatever job, is the thing - all hierarchies, like dualities, are dead ducks). 

  [. . .]

I find it awkward to call myself a poet or writer. If there are no walls there are no names. This is the morning, after the dispersion, and the work of the morning is methodology: how to use oneself, and on what. That is my profession. I am an archaeologist of morning.

From “Walden” by Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

All memorable events, I should say, transpire in morning time and in a morning atmosphere. The Vedas say, “All intelligences awake with the morning.” Poetry and art, and the fairest and most memorable of the actions of men, date from such an hour. All poets and heroes, like Memnon, are the children of Aurora, and emit their music at sunrise. To him whose elastic and vigorous thought keeps pace with the sun, the day is a perpetual morning. It matters not what the clocks say or the attitudes and labors of men. Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me. Moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep.

—o0o—

ADDRESS

Last week, I used the historian and philosopher Thomas Sheehan’s insights found in his book “The First Coming: How the kingdom of God became Christianity”, to suggest to you that by the kingdom of God Jesus meant that, henceforth and forever, “God” was present only in and as one’s neighbour. In a sense, by doing this, he was one of the first people to announce what, today, we have come to know as “the death of God”; although for Jesus perhaps the term “abdication of God” would be a more suitable way of putting it. But, whatever you choose to call it, Jesus’ basic insight was that the metaphysical God “up-there” has been emptied into the world, henceforth only to be seen by us in the simple call to justice and charity as it is played out in this natural world in the present and the ever-unfolding future. According to Sheehan Jesus’ proclamation marked the death of religion and religion’s God and heralded the beginning of the post-religious experience — a life lived, not in the past or the far-off future, but here and now.

Now, to take this proclamation seriously — as most of us did last week — is to become something that is not really a disciple of Jesus. Why? Well, because what counts in all this is not Jesus but his message. Remember the point I made last week that, whilst Jesus had a message, Jesus WAS NOT, NOR IS HIMSELF the message. To use an old Buddhist image, Jesus is a finger pointing at the moon not the moon itself.

So if, to follow Jesus in this proclamation is not to become his disciple — and it is certainly not to become a Christian because, as Sheehan ably illustrated, Christianity singularly failed to understand Jesus’ proclamation — then what does this make us? How might we as a religious community describe ourselves, our message and therefore, by implication, our task both to ourselves and to the world? What is it we are trying to get ourselves and others to become?

These are really important questions to answer because as a denomination it seems to me that we have been — and I certainly have been — hamstrung by needing, and to some extent wanting, to play out our continued relationship to Jesus using Christian categories like “discipleship” or “being Christian”. But we all know this simply won’t do anymore and that we need a new way of talking about what belonging to this church tradition might be “all about”.

But this is an incredibly hard thing to do and, because it hasn’t been successfully done by us for over a century, upon first articulation and first hearing, any new expression is liable to be very puzzling. I also fully admit that my attempt to say this something new might not stick — but that’s a risk I have to take.

Today I’m going to suggest an answer which says that to follow Jesus in the way outlined by Sheehan is to become “archeologists of morning”. This description comes from a short essay of 1952 by the poet and literary critic Charles Olson and the remainder of this address is an attempt to show you why I think “archeologists of morning” might an appropriate description of what we’re about.

Olson first of all wants us to shift our emphasis as creative creatures from the past to the present and to see that the present moment is always the prologue of our unfolding, creative life. In other words the present is the "perpetual morning" of our always-already unfolding life.

Here, to help us understand the image of perpetual morning that I've just used (NB Olson didn't use it himself) it is helpful to quote Henry David Thoreau (in Walden), an author whose work Olson almost certainly knew well:

“All memorable events, I should say, transpire in morning time and in a morning atmosphere. The Vedas say, “All intelligences awake with the morning.” Poetry and art, and the fairest and most memorable of the actions of men, date from such an hour. All poets and heroes, like Memnon, are the children of Aurora, and emit their music at sunrise. To him whose elastic and vigorous thought keeps pace with the sun, the day is a perpetual morning. It matters not what the clocks say or the attitudes and labors of men. Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me. Moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep.”

Now, for Olson the past is available to us in only two living ways and both of them are available to us ONLY in the present, in this perpetual morning. Keeping in mind Olson’s image of the archeologist, it is into this always-already perpetual morning that we are going to be doing our digging.

All this is, of course, not to deny that something called the past and what we call history has a meaningful reality, that would be ridiculous, but it is to acknowledge that for each of us as living, individual human-beings everything we call, identify and have available to us as the past, as history, is something which we are always-already carrying with us right now, in the present — the perpetual morning is always the soil into which we must dig which, in turn, is an activity that can bring most fully into the light the richest and most fulling unfolding of life.

As I have just said, Olson suggests that the past is available to us in two living ways and he uses the example his parents to illustrate the first of these; he call this “our own” history.

Olson recounts a couple of stories that are clearly speaking of the past in some way — but he then notes that “the work of each of us is to find out the true lineament of ourselves by facing up to the primal features of these founders who lie buried in us” (p. 206). The point he is making is that his dead parents — and by extension all the past people, things and events that are our founders and which have made us who were are — all these are only available to us in the perpetual morning of the here and now, buried in the soil of our own cultural memories, whether they be mental or physical. I hope you can see that this is to begin to understand ourselves as the present ground, earth or perpetual morning, into which we must dig.

The second available, living past — which is a past not “our own” — is something a little more allusive because Olson thinks it is a past for which we, in the West, don’t yet have a vocabulary for. He “invokes it” by saying it is “the mythological” but he immediately says that is “too soft” a way of putting it. He then suggests the following:

“What I mean is that foundling which lies surely in the phenomenological ‘raging apart’ as these queer parents rage in us” (p. 206).

I take Olson to be gesturing towards that ancient, mysterious, powerful, universal, animating and raging life-force — gifted to each of us like a foundling child from who knows what parent — that every creature (and perhaps even every thing) has deep within it and which drives each of us to become the distinct, conscious, creative individuals we are.

I think it’s important at this point strongly to suggest that we should hear the word “raging” here in the sense that a storm rages and not in the sense that an angry or disappointed man or woman might rage. Olson’s “raging apart” is a natural phenomenon that is as present in the seed’s drive to become a flower or a tree as it is in the caterpillar becoming a butterfly. This ancient foundling — this present, ancient and mysterious, raging life-force of the perpetual morning — is buried in us in the present in the same way that our parents and other founding elements of the past lie buried in our present being and we, as archeologists of morning, are called upon to dig them up.

But why are we to dig? Well, remember Olson tells us that the work of the morning “is methodology: how to use oneself, and on what.”

With this insight we begin to arrive at the heart of the matter, in the perpetual morning (at whatever time of earthly day it is) the question is always how to use oneself and on what?

Olson thought we found the answers when we became  archaeologists of morning, always to be getting on with it, digging deep into the present soil of ourselves and the world, now, in this instant, with no drag and ourselves as the only reader and mover of the instant freed from all restrictive theories and creeds. This is a way of working that sits, I think, very comfortably with Sheehan’s understanding of how Jesus worked.

So, Olson thinks the "work and dogmas" of such a free, morning way of being is three-fold. (Perhaps "dogma" is the wrong word but Olson seems to uses it clearly to express how strongly he holds to these three aims and, by extension, wants us to hold to them.)

The first is “How by form, to get the content instant”. By this he means he wants us to create things where the form they take perfectly, and immediately, expresses the content. It seems that the primary content of Jesus’ thought was the immediate presence of God — the source and meaning of life — and Sheehan helps show us that Jesus seems to have believed that this was only experienced in actual, immediate expressions of love and justice to our neighbours. However, the form the Christian church took on singularly failed to make this content instant. God was perceived to be either in the past, above us, or a long way off in the future. In the Church God’s presence was something that increasingly became mediated second-hand only through priests, bishops, holy texts, complex rituals and creedal beliefs. A form more designed to make it’s content as far from instant as possible it would be hard to imagine! But, in the form of Jesus’ life, the content — the source and meaning of life — seemed to be instantly and utterly present. Olson sought this, of course, in his own writing.

The second work and dogma of Olson’s way of being Olson thought was “what any of us are by the work on ourself, how to make ourself fit instruments for use (how we augment the given — what used to be called our fate)”. In his parable of the talents Jesus similarly encouraged us to augment the given and to take it into the world allowing it to flourish and grow in the service of others as best as we are able. Fearfully to bury our talents is an action impossible for any archeologist of morning for it always results in a diminishment and loss. Our digging also helps us to uncover living memories of this same service to others that have beautifully revealed to us the meaning and source of life. In turn we can use these examples to help us make ourselves fit instruments for use and so better able to augment the given for ourselves and others.

The third work and dogma of Olson’s way of being is to assert that “there is no such thing as duality either of the body and the soul or of the world and I, that the fact in the human universe is the discharge of the many (the multiple) by the one (yrself done right, whatever you are, in whatever job, is the thing — all hierarchies, like dualities, are dead ducks).“

Olson wants to see everything as interconnected and interdependent — to see that, in truth there are no dualities and no absolute hierarchies — and that the task of our lives, our profession, is to shape ourselves rightly in the light of this, whatever we are and in what ever job. The task is to be as fully alive in the perpetual morning as possible making ourselves and our content immediate without reference to any duality or hierarchy. Again I think it is clear Jesus wanted nothing less himself for he could see that we were all sons and daughters of a present God who calls into service of others — ourselves done right. This task can be undertaken as writers, scientists, musicians, poets, engineers, chemists, mathematicians, administrators, or whatever — and this helps us see that in every act of true and present living there are no walls nor any distinct names dividing us. When we do this well we find we are one with life, our own and others, and we come to see there are no dualities and no absolute hierarchies, no God up there and us down here, only the perpetual morning that is the whole of creation ever-unfolding in it’s astonishingly beautiful, plural ways.

But all of this is lost whenever we are tempted to live out of an ancient past, to hold to an ancient name, to hide behind an ancient wall, hierarchy, dogma or tradition; it’s lost too whenever we are tempted to look forward in similar ways to an imagined perfect future.

The only place we have is now, the only place to dig for answers is here, and to be in the here and now is always to be standing at the moment of a perpetual new dawn.

But to live the fulfilled perpetually new morning life expressed by Jesus and intuited by Olson we have to become, not disciples of Jesus or Olson, Christians or the followers of any other formal religion but, instead, simply archaeologists of morning. When we do this we will always see that, as Thoreau said, there is always “more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.”

—o0o—


There is an interesting essay by Olson's friend and fellow poet, Robert Creeley, available on line called "An Image of Man . . .": Working Notes on Charles Olson's Concept of Person that some readers may be interested in exploring. You can find it at this link.

—o0o—

The Entrusted Money (see, e.g., Matthew 25:14-28) by John Dominic Crossan in The Essential Jesus (Harpur Collins, 1994)

Before he set out to travel abroad an aristocrat
entrusted five talents to one steward, two to another, 
and one to a third.
The first made five talents more 
The second made two talents more 
The third made a hole in the ground and hid it 

When he eventually returned the aristocrat called in 
the stewards to give an account of their activities 

First report: “I have doubled your money” 
Response: “I will double your authority” 

Second report: “I have doubled your money” 
Response: “I will double your authority” 

Third report: “I was afraid 
you are mean: you reap without sowing 
you are hard: you store without harvesting
so I hid your money and here it is” 
Response: “You should have hidden it not in the 
ground but in a bank 
And brought it back not alone but with interest” 

The aristocrat took both money and authority away 
from the third steward and gave it instead to the 
first one

J. D. Crossan's Commentary: A talent was worth 60 mines or 6,000 denarii or 24,000 sesterces. At that time, for example, the base pay of a legionary was 900 sesterces (225 denarii) per annum. And, at the start of the second century, Pliny the Younger’s will established an annuity for one hundred freedmen at 840 sesterces (210 denarii) per person per annum. We are dealing, in other words, with large but not impossible sums of money—for rich people. How would ordinary people, especially peasants, react to a story like this? With which steward would they have identified even in imagination? It is precisely commercialisation and monetisation, where money can be doubled outside a bank or at least increased within it, that most threatens traditional peasant landholdings. How can reaction to this story not become a seminar in social justice? Would it have been possible, originally, to tell this story as a full performance without detailing how those first servants doubled their master’s money?





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