Saturday, December 04, 2010

Divinity Effects

…the tintinnabuli style — especially in the simple form in which it exists in “Für Alina” — consists of two lines. The melody, which proceeds mainly in steps up and down the scale, might be compared to a child tentatively walking. The second line underpins each note of the melody with a note from a harmonizing triad (the fundamental chord of Western music) that is positioned as close as possible to the note of the melody, but always below. You could imagine this accompaniment to be a mother with her hands outstretched to ensure her toddler doesn’t fall. Pärt grabbed my own hand with excitement. “This is the whole secret of tintinnabuli,” he exclaimed. “The two lines. One line is who we are, and the other line is who is holding and takes care of us. Sometimes I say — it is not a joke, but also it is as a joke taken — that the melodic line is our reality, our sins. But the other line is forgiving the sins.”

How can one invoke the idea of the divine in the various arts of our time? I’ve been thinking about this a bit since I read Mark Scroggins’ remarks on the deeply religious poetry of Peter O’Leary over at And, as I think about the issue, I keep coming back to the remark quoted above, a remark made by the great composer Arvo Pärt when he was interviewed by a reporter from the New York Times. There are, of course, all kinds of ways of invoking or representing divinity, from the humble church mural of a blonde, blue-eyed Jesus to the vague, sterile glow of some New Age ball of light. But the one that intrigues me, and seems to find expression in a number of different art forms, is the one Pärt mentions: the presentation of something we can identify with, combined with the presentation of something larger that comprehends and forgives the thing with which we identify. This seems to me a particularly powerful way of giving an emotional impression of the presence of divinity (which, I hasten to add, is not the same thing as a proof or argument for divinity).

Here’s a good performance of “Für Alina”:

The piece is nothing like, say, the Dies irae section of Verdi’s Requiem, which gives us a big, scary sound representing the wrath of God. What we’re getting isn’t so much a representation of a being and his act as it is a representation of a relationship between two sounds. The piece isn’t program music by any means — the sort of thing where the chug-chug-chug of the strings represents a train, and the tweet of the flutes represents the train whistle — but you can hear the hesitant, yearning, broken steps that Pärt proposes we might identify with, and the other sound that shadows those steps, implying a force that both sympathizes with and transcends them.


The effect that Pärt is going for has analogues in poetry. The piece that comes to mind for me is John Matthias’ long poem “A Compostella Diptych,” which follows the old pilgrim route across Spain to Santiago de Compostella. Although this isn’t the way Matthias divides it, one might think of “A Compostella Diptych” as a poem divided into three different parts: a long section, spanning most of the poem, and two short parts coming suddenly one after the other at the very end. The first part takes on the history of the pilgrim routes across France and Spain, a history that comes to suggest the history of the West. The long opening sections of the poem first present the people of the West on their pilgrimages over the centuries as a kind of unified historical subject bent on a single task of mutual significance. The pronoun “they” links many disparate people over the centuries into one subject, even as the poem’s musical incantations lull the reader into a sense of historical experience as a kind of rhythmic repetition:

Via Tolosona, Via Podiensis.
There among the tall and narrow cyresses,
the white sarcophagi of Arles

worn by centuries of wind & sun,
where Charlemagne’s lieutenants it was said
lay beside Servilius & Flavius

and coffins drifted down the Rhone
on narrow rafts to be unloaded by St. Victor’s monks,
they walked: Via Tolosona.

Via Podiensis…

The passage goes on, with the refrain of “Via Tolosona, Via Podiensis” recurring, even as the referent for the pronoun “they” continues to expand, including pilgrims from farther and farther afield, and separated by more and more centuries.

Running counter to the great binding-together of many peoples and many periods is a dissonance that comes in the depiction of the history of heretics in Spain and Provençe. After writing of the movement of the pilgrims as a kind of song, Matthias turns to the heretics, and tells us:

… there was another song — one sung inwardly
to a percussion of the jangling
manacles and fetters hanging on the branded

heretics who crawled the roads
on hands and knees and slept with lepers under
dark facades of abbeys

This song is a dissonance, an apparently inassimilable disruption of the cultural unity evoked by Matthias’ repetitions. And it too repeats, the jangling of manacles being heard for the destroyed Gnostics, the hunted and besieged Cathars, the victims of the Inquisition, the displaced peoples of the Napoleonic wars, the politically repressed Basques, and, after the Christian reconquest of Spain from the Moors, “the Jews [who] / hid their secret practices, and the Arabs [who hid] theirs.”

I find all of this fascinating, but the really exciting thing comes next, when harmony and dissonance come into contact with a third sonic entity — silence. It’s here that we begin to get an impression of eternity and of an embracing divinity. The harmony-dissonance dialectic of the poem’s long treatment of history comes to an abrupt end with the great munitions blast that opens the final section of the poem. The blast leads to a stunned silence that opens up a sense of ontological belonging. Our first clue to the special significance of the blast comes when we read that, when the blast shook the earth and caused the bells of faraway cathedrals to ring, “men / whose job it was to ring them stood / amazed” and “wondered if this thunder / and the ringing was in time for Vespers // or for Nones or if it was entirely out of time.” In the evocation of an event outside of time the aspect of eternity, and even divinity, suggests itself.

The history that had previously seemed riven by dissonance appears now as a whole from which nothing can be separated, and into which everything is gathered. Significantly, Matthias himself is included in this gathering:

Towards Pamplona, long long after all Navarre
was Spain, and after the end
of the Kingdom of Aragón, & after the end of the end,

I, John, walked with my wife Diana
down from the Somport Pass following the silence
that invited and received my song.

There is more at stake here than a sense of one’s place in history: as the last two lines of the second stanza above indicate, Matthias sees himself not only in relation to history, but in relation to the great silence that invites and receives his song.

The invitation and reception of the song are important, in that they imply that silence — the force that transcends the world and its dissonance — also sympathizes with us, the inhabitance of the dissonant and often cruel world. It’s an effect similar to what Arvo Pärt was after in “Für Alina.” In both pieces, we’re given something which we can identify (in Pärt, the melodic line that “is our reality, our sins,” in Matthias the invocation of history, in which he himself in included) and something that transcends yet sympathizes the thing with which we identify (in Pärt, “the other line” that is “forgiving the sins,” in Matthias, the silence that invites and receives his song).

[If you recognize the reading of Matthias’ poem above, then you’ve read chapter five of my book Laureates and Heretics, from which the reading is adapted. And I thank you for reading my book.]


It’s not without interest, I think, to note that Arvo Pärt and John Matthias are both fundamentally Christian artists — Pärt being closely linked with Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Matthias being a man who (as he once told me) would have converted to Catholicism had he not been employed as a professor at the University of Notre Dame, where “to embrace the church would have been to embrace the state.” I say this isn’t without interest, because the central episode of Christianity, the crucifixion, seems to me to carry within it a relationship to divinity very much in keeping with the relationship invoked in “Für Alina” and “A Compostella Diptych.”

The moment of the crucifixion takes Jesus — who is both entirely divine, and, via the incarnation, entirely human — and gives him to us in his most suffering, human form, vulnerable to mortality, and even to a sense of isolation from divinity. I’m thinking, here, of the moment (presented in Matthew 27:46 and in Mark 15:24) where Jesus cries out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Here we have Jesus feeling himself abandoned by God — that is, by his own divine nature (okay, I know that the moment you offer an interpretation of a Christian gospel, you’re opening yourself up to being whacked on the head by a thousand interpretive tracts wielded by a horde consisting of a mingled mob of the hyper-learned, the ignorant, and the zealous — but I’ve always been inclined toward a reading of the passage consonant with that in the apocryphal Gospel of Peter, where the phrase is taken as meaning something like Jesus feeling that his power or godhead has forsaken him). And then, after this dark moment of utter forsakenness, even faithlessness, comes the last moment on the cross, when Jesus cries out “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” — a reuniting with something that both transcends the suffering body on the cross, and at the same time is at one with it, via the mystery of the trinitarian unity of father, son, and spirit.

I’m sure other religious traditions have ways of expressing a similar transcendent-yet-sympathetic force. All I mean to point out in this section is that the invocation of divinity in two Christian artists, Pärt and Matthias, takes a form that, despite it’s lack of resemblance to traditional Christian iconography, is in sympathy with some of the central moments of that faith.


I suppose this is probably the place for me to point out that I’m no kind of Christian, nor am I affiliated with any religion. On my Facebook page I list my religious views as “Spinoza-ish,” in that I’ve long felt a vague intuition of the unity of all things, sometimes thinking of it in terms of Spinoza’s idea of substance, sometimes in terms of Schopenhauer’s notion of will. But I suppose that’s really more on an intuition about ontology, about the nature of being, than it is about religion as such. On religion, I’m often inclined to take the view of Ludwig Feuerbach — a fact which actually does bear on how I’d like to interpret the works by Pärt and Matthias about which I’ve been jabbering on.

Feuerbach was one of the “Young Hegelians,” the group of nineteenth century German philosophers who came of age in the shadow of Hegelian thought, but he took the ponderous master’s thoughts in more radical directions. The most radical part of his thinking came in the 1841 book The Essence of Christianity, where argued that religion “implied the projection by man of his own essential properties and powers into a transcendent sphere in such a way that they appeared before him in the shape of a divine being standing over and above himself.” He went on to say that “the divine thing is nothing else than the human being, or rather, human nature, purified, freed from the limits of the individual man, made objective — i.e., contemplated and revered as another, a distinct being.” What all this means is that the properties we attribute to God are really our own properties, but we fool ourselves into thinking that they aren’t. Think about all those athletes who really push themselves, and call on God or Jesus to help them, and then attribute their success to divine intervention. In Feuerbach’s view (and mine, for what it’s worth) they aren’t really the recipients of supernatural aid — they’ve just managed to call upon reserves of strength within themselves that they didn’t know they had. I suppose it is psychologically important for people in extreme circumstances to think that the strength they are calling on comes from some divine elsewhere. I mean, if you’re running a marathon and you think you’ve already given it everything you have, and you aren’t going to win, you can call for additional strength beyond what you thought you had — but to do this you have believe that there’s something more to draw on, something beyond yourself. (This isn’t Feuerbach’s example, of course — he was very critical of how people get screwed over when they allow themselves to believe that their strength belongs not to them, but to a God whose priests stand between them and divinity).

What does any of this have to do with the way Pärt and Matthias invoke a sense of divinity by showing us something with which we can identify, then showing us something that both transcends and sympathizes with that thing? Ah! Glad you asked. Well, since I’ve already recycled some paragraphs from a book I wrote, I won’t feel too bad about recycling a passage from Jung that I mentioned not long ago in a post on comedy. It’s actually a passage from Anthony Storr’s comments on Jung, in which he quotes the Great Man. Here’s the deal: if, like Feuerbach, we think of the divine not as a supernatural force, but as a way of representing powers within ourselves while telling ourselves they belong to something outside ourselves, then we can think of Pärt and Matthias’ works as actually describing a psychological state, rather than a relation to the divine. Seen this way, what they’re describing, really, is a way of relation to our own experiences with a kind of distance, while still feeling those experiences intimately and deeply.

Here’s what Storr has to say:

Jung describes how some of his patients, faced with what appeared an insoluble conflict, solved it by “outgrowing” it, by developing “a new level of consciousness.” He writes: “Some higher or wider interest appeared on the patient’s horizon, and through this broadening of his outlook the insoluble problem lost its urgency. It was not solved logically on its own terms but faded out when faced with a new and stronger life urge.” The attainment of this new level of psychological development includes a certain degree of “detachment from one’s emotions. One certainly does feel the affect and is shaken and tormented by it, yet at the same time one is aware of a higher consciousness looking on which prevents one from becoming identical with the affect, a consciousness which regards the affect as an object, and can say ‘I know that I suffer.’”

So: in Pärt’s “Für Alina” we have the melodic line that “is our reality, our sins” and the other line that “forgives those sins” — but seen psychogically, rather than religiously, we can say that the first line is connected to our own painful experiences, and that the experience of hearing that second line allows us to imagine a perspective that is in touch with those experiences, but also distant from them — we can sense our guilty, broken selves, but we can also imagine those selves from the outside, as objects, and therefore experience, along with our suffering, a distance from that suffering, an understanding of pain, rather than pain unaccompanied by understanding. Or in the case of Matthias, we can experience ourselves as parts of the immense, violence-ridden history of the world, but also see that world if from the outside. Or, for that matter, we can see the Jesus of the crucifixion as being fully in his torment on the cross, while simultaneously viewing himself from the transcendent perspective of the Father or the Holy Spirit — he is the son, suffering, but he is also connected to, even identical with, something that looks on the suffering from a distance, with infinite compassion. You get the idea.


Some of the greatest works of art actually manage to do Pärt and Matthias one better. In addition to showing us something with which we can identify, and a larger force that transcends and sympathizes with that thing, these artists add another element. They also show us how the feeling of a divine force is, in fact, an emanation of our own minds, a psychological fact such as that described by Storr and Jung. Wordsworth’s Prelude seems to me to be just such a work. I’m thinking of the famous “Blest the Infant Babe” passage from book two. Check it out:

Blest the infant Babe, 

(For with my best conjecture I would trace 

Our Being's earthly progress,) blest the Babe, 

Nursed in his Mother's arms, who sinks to sleep 

Rocked on his Mother's breast; who with his soul 

Drinks in the feelings of his Mother's eye! 

For him, in one dear Presence, there exists 

A virtue which irradiates and exalts 

Objects through widest intercourse of sense. 

No outcast he, bewildered and depressed: 

Along his infant veins are interfused 

The gravitation and the filial bond 

Of nature that connect him with the world. 

Is there a flower, to which he points with hand 

Too weak to gather it, already love 

Drawn from love's purest earthly fount for him 

Hath beautified that flower; already shades 

Of pity cast from inward tenderness 

Do fall around him upon aught that bears 

Unsightly marks of violence or harm. 

Emphatically such a Being lives,
Frail creature as he is, helpless as frail,
An inmate of this active universe: 

For, feeling has to him imparted power 

That through the growing faculties of sense 

Doth like an agent of the one great Mind 

Create, creator and receiver both, 

Working but in alliance with the works 

Which it beholds.--Such, verily, is the first
Poetic spirit of our human life,
By uniform control of after years,
In most, abated or suppressed; in some, 

Through every change of growth and of decay, 

Pre-eminent till death. 
From early days, 

Beginning not long after that first time 

In which, a Babe, by intercourse of touch 

I held mute dialogues with my Mother's heart, 

I have endeavoured to display the means 

Whereby this infant sensibility, 

Great birthright of our being, was in me
Augmented and sustained.

Here, we enter with the perspective of the baby (think of the baby as being like the melodic line in “Für Alina”), and feel, with that baby, a larger force, something greater than us and sympathetic to us (the mother — think of her as the other line in “Für Alina,” the line “forgiving our sins”). The infant, here, comes to see the whole world as radiating this kind of sympathy, as being charged with a life-force that cares for us. Wordsworth knows this is a matter of psychology, of the child transposing the mother’s love to the world. Having seen the world through the protective care of the mother, the child comes to think of the world as having the mother’s qualities of care and love. It’s a kind of transferal — Wordsworth knows this, yet he feels fortunate in being one of the few people whose psyches continue to function in this infantile way. That is: he feels himself in the world, with all of his pains and sufferings, but he also feels there is a larger perspective from which his troubles are sympathized with. He knows this is a matter of projection — sort of like the projection in Feuerbach, but here it is the mother’s qualities transferred to a kind of pantheistic divine world, not the individual’s own qualities transferred to an imagined divine creature. But that knowledge doesn’t prevent Wordsworth from feeling the way he feels. He just happens to know why he experiences this double perspective (as suffer and as sympathetic, transcendent force). To convey all this in a rich, sense-satisfying way — as opposed to the clumsy conceptual way I have for conveying it, via citation and explanation and tedious pedantic nattering — seems to me to be one of the great achievements of spiritually-oriented art.


Since we’re talking about my specialty, tedious pedantic nattering, let me come to the final question of the tedious pedant: what shall we call this thing?. I mean, I don’t know of a term for the aesthetic move in which one gives the audience something with which they can identify, then invokes a larger force that transcends and sympathizes. I’d like to offer, as a possible term, a variation on a term of Roland Barthes’. Barthes once proposed a name for those moments in narrative that don’t seem to have any function in terms of establishing character, opening up lines of plot, or the like — those moments that seemed to have no function but to help establish a sense of reality for the scene (his examples include Flaubert’s mention of a barometer on the wall in the story “A Simple Heart” — it does nothing except make the house it is in feel like a real house). Barthes called these textual moments “reality effects.” I’d like to propose calling moments like those offered by Pärt and Matthias “divinity effects.”