Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Sunday, August 1, 2010

Aphrodite’s Bed: Love in the Homeric Hymn

I'm afraid I still don't know how to use Greek letters. I've transliterated some phrases here.

Among the glories of Greek poetry is its poignant fascination with pleasure, whether of the athletic field, the table or the bed (including, indeed, true love). Unlike certain other traditions that insist on angling after a share in eternity, the Greeks seized what beauty they found before their eyes, making of it a profoundly ambivalent ideal, its pleasure excruciatingly heightened by its transience. Their vision was elaborated in one of the grandest and most precise mythological systems preserved in words. The so-called Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, one of the oldest texts in the European tradition, deploys an array of mythological figures to define all-too-human love, a love that proves no less transcendent for its limitation in time.

The opposition of time and eternity is reflected in that between the human and divine worlds. In the Hymn these dualities are exploded and explored through the theme of threatening or enervating intercourse of a mortal with a goddess. The theme of is, of course, very common in literature and folklore from Ishtar's attempted seduction of Gilgamesh through tales of succubi in medieval tail-rhyme romance to Keats' "Belle Dame." In the twentieth century the search for heavenly connections fraught with danger continues in Lawrence, Henry Miller, Norman Mailer and many others and remains animated, more or less subtly, by the supernatural.

In nearly all these stories – the mythological and the “realistic” alike -- the motif is suggestive of the following themes: the numinous nature of sexuality itself; a simultaneously heightened vision of mortality and of the confusion or, indeed, unity of the impulses toward life and death in the psyche; and, finally, a sense of man's ultimate passivity and helplessness before the currents of fate. In spite of the pessimistic coloration of these latter themes, it in significant that a story of divine-human intercourse deals with a bridging of the gap, however temporary or even disastrous for the participants, between mundane reality and perfection.

In the “Hymn to Aphrodite” the transcendental character of sexuality is expressed in several ways. First, it is all but omnipotent, overmastering even Zeus. Secondly, human figures, when viewed as sexual objects are explicitly described as god-like, shining, divine (1. 55 and 1. 86 are two of many examples). Aphrodite and Ganymede are alike called thauma idein (l. 90 and l. 205). The clothing and ornament of the beloved assumes likewise a magical glow reflecting the onlooker's aroused energies.

As for the vision of mortality that is an intrinsic part of commingling with the divine, it is necessary here only to mention that, upon discovering what he has done, Anchises is not delighted at the grace that has' descended, but rather he fears for his life. (Topic II discusses other negative aspects of the encounter in more detail.)

The entire poem stresses passivity and helplessness. People are snatched by gods (Ganymede, Tithonus, Aphrodite in her deceitful narration, Anchises himself in a figurative sense); they are enwrapped by age (1. 244 ; eros "takes" them (1. 91). Both Anchises and Aphrodite are compelled to act as they do. Nowhere is human life or character portrayed as a self-made entity for which one assumes responsibility.

Yet it is worth recalling at this point that the entire poem is based on the ecstasy Anchises experiences. However disillusioned he is in the end, Anchises has felt a real though momentary restoration of Edenic conditions. Though he may be shaken, he must be also inspired.

The entire poem is structured by the design of its central theme -- the mingling of opposites: the human and the divine, heaven and earth, pleasure and fear, love and cruelty. Both Aphrodite and Anchises act with powerful and opposing inclinations contesting within their minds. Aphrodite acts with single-minded intensity, but once she has shared Anchises' bed, she is overcome with shame and distress, declaring mala pollon aasthen(1. 253). Anchises is apprehensive upon first seeing her (1. 83), submits to her with qualifications and misgivings (1. 145-151) as well as enthusiasm, and is again frightened when she reveals her true form (1. 182), Each then, feels what behaviorists call an approach-avoidance conflict, though the outcome is never in doubt. But the ambiguity of their motives goes beyond this doubt, for the love and desire they feel are themselves strangely compounded with malice and deceit. Zeus tosses lust to Aphrodite out of his resentment of her apparently stable will. She, in turn, tosses lust to Anchises in a cruelly calculating and manipulative manner. After lying to him and using him, she confronts him in a chilling and imperious manner orseo Dardanidel. 177) and she leaves him with threats and suspicions (1. 281-290). For his part, Anchises is self-absorbed to the point of narcissism. The reader's original glimpse of him suggests this quality that made him vulnerable and the appropriate victim for Aphrodite as he is seen while "all the others" are at work, strolling up and down alone, playing on his kithara (1. 79-80). Love appears in the poem as an instrument of manipulation, a leash by which another's ego may be led about.

The contradiction is epitomized in Aphrodite's epithet philommeides. The term expresses at once her association with pleasure and beauty and with heartless and sadistic mockery. It is first used (1. 17) in speaking of those whom she cannot "tame," "ensnare," or "bend." It occurs next (1. 49) in a context of her ridiculing all those whom she can render foolish and powerless by her wiles. It is also used in the moment (1. 155) of mounting the great bed. So it bears a burden of meaning at once sinister and intimate, welcome and frightful, the smile of a lover melting into the harsh grin of a victorious opponent.

Another highly memorable image of the contradictory sides of love is the familiar one of wild beasts. The haunting and beautiful lines describing Aphrodites approach to Anchises’ home surrounded by predatory animals (1. 69-74) suggest the wild, uncontrollable lust she feels and also its devouring, vampiristic quality. The bears and lions appear again on Anchises' bed, trophies of his earlier victories in subjugating wild natural forces (1 159). These animals, though potent and attractive, are merciless and driven.

These tensions precipitate a fall that is quite similar to the Biblical fall. Anchises, who had been inhabiting an idyllic but static rural world, finds himself the progenitor of a turbulent and tragic, but vital and energetic line. We see the Trojan War in the future, in which the erotic debacle is moved from myth to legend as it advances in time. This prediction, which foreshadows in fact the whole Greek world of those who originally heard the poem, clearly places the flaw that caused the fall into the category of a felix culpa in that it makes history possible. As Empedocles and Freud said, love and strife make the world move.

Examining the exceptions to Aphrodite's rule catalogued near the poem's beginning, one may see her defined negatively and better understand her attractions and her dangers. Athena, Hestia, and Artemis are mentioned as exempt from Aphrodite's sway. It is significant that the opposition implied is by no means between pleasure and reality principles. Athena is associated with war, Hestia with domesticity, and Artemis with the hunt, the dance, and civic life. What links these goddesses is the social nature of their functions. War insures a profound and emotional social solidarity. The ties forged in family life are at least as significant for the community as a whole as for the nuclear family as a separate unit. In the case of Artemis one might view the hunt as representing collective food production (hunting communities generally share their prey), while the dance is, though ecstatic, a ritual confirmation of group assumptions. Thus, the third element associated with Artemis, that of "orderly towns," which may have originally appeared somewhat out of place when juxtaposed with the wild cries of the hunt and the excitement of the dance, is actually fully of a piece with these other terms. Love in opposition to them is seen as a selfish, a paradoxically solitary obsession. One may act with devotion, determination, or bravery in response to circumstances, but erotic passion is exclusively self-justifying. That is the reason it carries the potential for such disorder, and why it is viewed with as much awe and fear as delight. The mutual dance of vulnerability and aggression that Aphrodite brings is a threat to the social order of self-defense, stable families, and group activities represented by the other three goddesses.

The tales of Ganymede and Tithonus, cited by Aphrodite as precedents in her apologia, further develop the concept of love in the poem. Neither suggests the delights of sexuality; those are assumed. What they do stress is the quantifying, the calculating quality of love that grows naturally from the solipsistic concerns of the lovers. In the case of Ganymede, almost no space is given to the putative point Aphrodite is making the fact that Zeus himself shares in the failings of the flesh. Nearly the whole passage is devoted to explaining how his father was pleased to be given some fine horses in exchange for his son, surely a cynical and disturbing comment on what Ganymede meant to Zeus and to the other heavenly banqueters. Even worse, because of its horror and inevitability is the story of Tithonus. Here the theme is the temporal limitation of love. The necessity for passic to flag and flesh to decline is presented in such a frightening way that when Eo closes the doors on the old babbler in his one-room nursing home, the reader feels quite sympathetic to her desire to avoid seeing, at least, the spectre of loathsome age. Though on earth, one's lover may age also, the leering faces () of youth will reproach him nonetheless.

Even so merciless a dissection of the pitfalls of love does not suffice for the cautionary burden of the poem. The hymn to a goddess that is really the story of that goddess’ defeat and of the tragedy of human existence closes with the curious, almost disorienting device characteristic of the prosodion form in the "Homeric hymns."


This anticlimactic ending, so immediately unsatisfying, has a peculiar effect of tossing the mythic action that has preceded it into a larger context, a swirl, a matrix far grander than the events just narrated, which had seemed all-important. The poets' mention of turning to other gods reminds the reader that on Olympus as on earth, psychic quantities of various coloration determine events by their mutual interrelationship and balancing of tensions. It is ill-advised to put all one's eggs in one basket or all one's votive offerings before a single altar. The formula may here have roots in a genuine function as prelude, but as evolved it seems to be as well a prudent recognition of the multiplicity of the gods and a reminder that no single force can guide one's mind toward integration and wholeness. It is also reminiscent of the statue to the unknown god (present in today's Africa as well as in St. Paul's Athens) that granted the powers even of those potencies of which one is not aware.

Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite

As is readily obvious, the translation is in rough form. I am attempting to make every line in English correspond to the line in Greek. I believe a basically colloquial language is the only one capable of being read in serious poetry today, though it is important to twist it with rhetoric and ornament to keep it alive. I used a basic five beat line, generally iambic, stretching it fairly often to six beats when the content implied some high moment or sustained tone. The line sounds almost but not quite natural in English. Since the lines are somewhat longer than ordinary, conversational breath units, they sound vaguely dignified and this impression is reinforced by the historic uses of English blank verse. The fact that the originals were written in a more highly artificial language might tend to favor a similarly artificial language for translation. But it is my contention and the common practice of classical translators today as a whole that the subject, style, and syntax of a poem like the Hymn are themselves sufficiently removed from colloquial realms that it would be a mistake to further intensify the effect. The lengthy semantic units of the lines allow the reader to linger lovingly on each of a long series of images or ideas, making the poem always clearly representing a special category of experience. (I think it would be tempting to break each line into tiny word groups and give each a separate space on the page, rather like bits in a Creeley poem, but the effect cannot be sustained for the large handfuls of meaning that each line of the hymn conveys and it would shortly become tedious and annoying.) I like to use as many ordinary expressions as possible, but an occasional admixture of the vulgar or the formal can sometimes help to remind the reader that the poem ranges over the whole of experience rather than being confined to specified reservations.

Hymn to Aphrodite

Muse, declare the deeds of golden Aphrodite,
the Cypriot who stirs sweet lust among the gods,
who's broken to her yoke the tribes of men,
flying birds, and all the wild beasts —
those that live on land or in the sea —
all love crowned Cytherea's works.
But there are three she cannot win with wiles:
bright-eyed Athena, aegis-bearing Zeus' child,
does not delight in golden Aphrodite’s deeds;
Athena's love's for war and Ares’ work,
for fights and combat and for well-made crafts,
for at the start she taught earth's men to make
chariots and war cars worked in bronze,
and then, she teaches, too, the soft-skinned girls
at home, puts in their minds most glorious skills;
nor does laughter-loving Aphrodite
control the loud resounding Artemis
of golden arrows who loves bows and hunts
and mountain beasts and loves the lyre and dance
and piercing cries and shady groves and just men's towns;
nor does the upright maiden Hestia,
crooked-counselled Cronos' first-born child
(and also youngest by the will of Zeus) love Love
(Apollo and Poseidon courted her
but she said no and firmly she refused
she swore a mighty oath which she upheld —
touching aegis-holding father Zeus's head,
the godly one, vowed virgin to remain —
Father Zeus gave her instead high fame,
and so she sits in hearts of homes and takes
the cream; she's honored in the temples, too,
and mortals make her senior of their gods.
Aphrodite's wiles won't win these three,
but Aphrodite captures all the rest,
the blessed gods and also mortal men.
Even thundering Zeus is led astray
the greatest and the one with greatest fame,
even his shrewd heart, when she should wish,
is easily led with mortals to make love
and his wife and sister Hera never knows.
(She whose form is fairest far of all,
most glorious of the gods whom Rhea bore
with sly Cronos -- all-knowing Zeus took her
and made of her his sage and prudent wife).
Then to Aphrodite Zeus tossed sweet
desire to mix with mortals so that soon
she could not keep away from beds of men.
So how could laughing Aphrodite then
make mock among the gods and softly smile and say
that she had joined the gods with mortal girls
(who give birth to sons of gods who're doomed to die)
and goddesses she'd mixed with mortal men.
Zeus threw then sweetest lust into her heart,
lust for Anchises tending cows on Ida's
spring-rich mountain peaks -- he looked a god.
Seeing him then laughing Aphrodite felt
A new desire and fear then strike her heart.
She went to Paphos -- Cyprus -- then where her
aromatic altar and her temple stood,
and she went in and shut the shining doors.
The graces then anointed her with oil
such as blooms on bodies of the gods.
(The oil was sweet, ambrosial, smelled so fine!)
Then laughter-loving Aphrodite donned
fine clothes of golden fabric on her flesh.
She left sweet-smelling Cyprus then for Troy
(fast she flew and high, the clouds her road),
then she came to spring-rich Ida, mother of beasts,
she went through hills right to his home and after her
came bright-eyed lions, fawning grey-furred wolves
and bears and fast leopards ravenous for deer,
and then her heart rejoiced at seeing them
and to their hearts she tossed hot lust; they paired
in twos and mated in the shade.
and then she came to the well-built house
and found him left alone within that place,
Anchises the great man with god's own grace.
All the rest had driven herds to grassy ,
spots and he was left alone at home
where he walked and plucked his lyre with piercing notes.
Zeus’ daughter Aphrodite stood before him
very like a virgin in her size and form
and told him as he eyed her not to fear.
Anchises looked at her and was amazed
to see her form and size and shining clothes.
She wore a robe outshining fire's glow,
fine and gold and richly worked. A marvel to
behold. It shone like moonshine all about her breasts
and she wore twisted armlets, calyx earrings bright
and round her tender throat fine necklaces.
Eros seized Anchises and he said
"You're welcome, queen, to this house, blessed one, be you
Artemis or Leto, golden Aphrodite,
noble Themis, or bright-eyed Athena
or it may be you're one among the Graces
who go with gods and whom we know don't die
or nymphs who live on lovely mountain tops
where rivers start and grassy meadows grow.
On a peak with prospects all about I'll build
an altar for you where I'll leave rich gifts
all through the year and you can smile on me,
make me great among the Trojan men,
make my offspring strong and as for me
let me live long and see the shining sun –
prosperous I'd come to old age door."
Aphrodite, Zeus' child, answered him,
"Most glorious of earth-born men, know I'm
not divine — why think I’m like a god.
I'm mortal and my mother was of earth.
My father's famous Otreus — you know
of him, he rules all well-walled Phrygia,
but I can speak your tongue as well as mine,
My nurse at home was Trojan and she took
me as a baby from my mother's care.
That's the way I learned your speech so well.
I danced for noisy Artemis of golden shafts,
the gold-wand-holding Argus-killer grabbed me —
we played, the nymphs, and much sought after girls
and then a countless crowd encircled us,
then gold-wand-holding Argus-killer seized me.
He took me over farms of mortal men
and over land untenanted, untilled
where raw-meat-eating beasts roam shaded spots
It seemed my feet would never touch the fertile earth.
He told me I should be Anchises’ wife,
and from our bed would come forth brilliant sons,
the offspring from our bed would shine most bright.
The mighty Argus-slayer told me this
and then he mounted up to join the gods,
and I came here for fate is on me strong.
I beg of you by Zeus and by your parents
(who must be good or they'd have no such son)
take this virgin then, unversed in love.
Show me to your father, to your pru-
dent mother and your noble siblings, too.
I shall be no bad addition, rather good.
Quick, send to the fast-horsed Phrygian folk
to tell my father and my mourning mother.
They will send you woven clothes and heaps
of gold. These many shining things are yours with me.
You should give a lovely wedding feast,
well-liked by men and by the deathless gods.
Having talked, she tossed his heart sweet lust.
Eros seized Anchises and he said,
"If you are mortal and your mother too,
famed Otreus your father as you say,
if godly herald Hermes brought you here,
if you’re to be my wife for life,
then there’s no god or mortal man can hold
me back till I have lain with you in love.
Right now Apollo the far-shooter could
loose pain’s arrows from his silver bow —
I would go to hell, my godlike girl,
after having mounted to your bed.
He took her hand and laughter-loving Aphrodite
looked off with pretty eyes downcast,
moved to the well-made bed with soft
clothes spread for him. For blankets they had skins
of bears and of loud-roaring lions, too
that he had killed himself on mountain heights.
And when they'd mounted to the well-made bed,
he first took off her twisted armlets, pins,
her calyx earrings, and her necklaces.
He loosed her girdlebelt and stripped her shining clothes
and laid them on a silver-studded seat.
Then — by the will of gods and destiny,
deity and man made love (he didn't realize).
But at the tine when cows and hardy sheep
turn back for home and leave the flowered fields
then Aphrodite dressed herself and poured
out sweet and soundest sleep on Anchises.
And when the bright divinity was dressed,
she stood beside the bed and her head touched
the roof and from her fairest goddess' cheeks
there shone a beauty that befits crowned
Cytherea -- waking him she said,
"Get up, o son of Dardanus! Why sleep?
And think, if now I look the same as when
your eyes looked on and saw me first before?
And quickly he awoke and looked at her,
at Aphrodite's throat and lovely eyes
and much afraid he turned his eyes aside
and pulled his cloak up high to hide his face
and speaking winged words entreated her,
"Goddess, when I saw you first, I knew
you were divine, but you deceived me then.
By aegis-holding Zeus I beg of you
don't leave me now to live a cursed life!
Take pity! He who beds a god becomes
after that no more a healthy man."
Then Zeus' daughter Aphrodite spoke,
"Anchises, noblest of all mortal men,
take heart and don't be overcome by fear.
You needn't fear you'll suffer harm from me
or other gods for we have love for you
You shall have a son who'll rule in Troy.
His children's children, too, who are to come.
His name shall be Aeneas since I was
filled with awful shame to lie with man.
(Yet your line always comes the nearest gods
in form and shape of any mortal men).
Wise Zeus he grabbed the blond Ganymede,
(his beauty was so great) and took him up
to pour the drinks in Zeus's house for gods.
A marvel and the gods all honor him.
He pours red nectar from a golden bowl.
But Tros felt endless pain then not to know
to where the wondrous wind had borne his boy
so always then he mourned and every day
till pitying Zeus paid him for his son
high-stepping horses such as carry gods.
Those were a gift and then Zeus told the Guide,
the Argus-killer, to inform the man
his son would live like deathless, ageless gods.
And when Tros heard this news from Zeus he wept
no more but in his heart rejoiced
and joyous rode his stormy-footed steeds.
So Tithonos was snatched by golden Dawn
and he was of your race yet like a god,
and she asked dark-cloud Cronos’ son if he
might be immortal, live throughout all time
and Zeus consented and fulfilled her wish.
Childish then was venerable Dawn.
She didn't ask for youth with no old age
so while he had his charming youth he lived
with golden-throned Dawn the early born
delighting at earth's end by Ocean's stream,
but when the first grey hairs began to grow
on his fair head and on his noble chin,
venerable Dawn kept from his bed
although she still looked after him at home,
gave him ambrosia, food, and finest clothes.
But when he was oppressed with loathsome age,
when he could not walk or lift his limbs,
it seemed to her heart then the wisest thing
to lay him down and close the shining doors.
There he always babbles and his strength
is gone which once he had in limber limbs.
I wouldn't have you deathless in that way
to be among the gods and always live,
but if you could preserve your present form
and shape and could be called my mate,
sorrow would not wrap my prudent heart.
But you will soon be seized by stark old age
which merciless stands next to every man
destructive, wretched, hated by the gods.
The gods will now reproach me thanks to you
every day and always due to you.
They used to fear my comments and my craft
for I could mate them all with mortals too.
Thus I made my mind subject them all,
but now my words will sound with no such strength
among the gods for much I've been misled.
Most wretchedly my mind has gone astray.
Beneath my belt a child I've made with man,
and when that child first sees sunlight, the moun-
tain nymphs full-breasted should assume his care.
(Those nymphs are neither men nor gods but live
quite long and eat immortal food and dance
in circles fair and fast among the gods
and Sileni and Argus-killer clear-
sighted mate with them in lovely caves.
And when they're born then pines or bright-topped oaks
grow up upon the fertile earth so fine
and flourish standing on steep mountain peaks,
and men know these are sacred precincts then
and never mortal cuts the trees with ax.
But when the Moira Death stands very near
first those fine trees will wither standing still.
Their bark then rots about them and boughs fall.
The nymph and tree leave sunlight then at once.
The nymphs shall keep my child and care for him,
and when he's reached the age of charming youth
the goddesses will show him them to you
and so that I can tell you all I want,
I'll bring the child here when he is five
and when you have cast eyes upon this boy
(a joyful sight for godlike he will be)
then bring him quick to windy Ilion
and if the mortals ask you who it was
who got your own dear child beneath her belt,
you must be sure to tell them as I bid --
say that his mother is a flowery nymph,
one who lives in forests of this hill,
but if you boast and say a foolish thing
and say you lay with well crowned Cytherea,
angry Zeus will throw a thunderbolt.
I’ve told you all so heed what I have said.
Keep yourself from talk, respect god's wrath.
Then she mounted up the windy sky.
Hail goddess, queen of Cyprus strong!
I began with you and now shall turn.

Millenarian Rhetoric and the Avant-Garde

A generation or so ago, the Cloud House poets of San Francisco used to read their poetry on the streets, surprising unwary morning commuters with unexpected juxtapositions of words. In these public performances they thought of themselves as following the lead of Jack Micheline (or perhaps Vachel Lindsay), but they really looked like nothing so much as street evangelists. And, indeed, the struggles of the avant-garde have typically been spiritual struggles, clothed in the highly-colored Salvation Army rhetoric of millennial expectation, familiar from the rants of “holy barbarians” for several thousands of years.

This should not be surprising, since millenarianism is essentially decentering. In denying the permanence or reality of the phenomenal universe and substituting a vision of the imagination, the prophet may then reorder reality with absolute freedom, enjoying license given otherwise only to the godhead at the outset of things, the garret revolutionary, or the performer at the coffeehouse open mike poetry night.

Millennial time-schemes are never cyclic. Meaning collects about transformative, novel events rather than in recurring patterns. In art post-Romantic insistence on innovation such as Gertrude Stein’s use of the “bizarre” and “strange” to “bring back vitality to language” has almost come to be accepted as inevitable, though tradition and convention were dominant through thousands of years of oral literature and imitation of prior models remained the standard through the neo-classicists of the eighteenth century.

Before Rimbaud’s claim that the true artist must create “de nouveau,” the Lord of Revelations crowed “I make all things new” (21:5), and in our own day Jerome Rothenburg asserts Talmudic authority for Pound’s very phrase “Make it new!” (3) The abolition of the future is a topos in Isaiah’s New Jerusalem which “shall not be remembered, not come into mind” (66:17) as well as in Tristan Tzara (13, 45) not to mention the Sex Pistols (Marcus, 11).

The rhetoric occupied by millenarian religionists is linked not only to the language of the artistic avant-garde. Much of the same semiotic territory is occupied in political discourse by utopians, anarchists, and far-left adventurists, and, indeed, there have been close links between artistic innovators and subversives since the British sent Leeson to spy on Percy Shelley. A few citations should be sufficient reminder of the vehemence and aggression of the language of this tradition in recent poetry. Rimbaud’s “Que’est-ce pour nous, mon Coeur, que les nappes de sang” with its wild cry “Perish! Power, justice, history, down! . . .Blood, blood . . . All to war, to vengeance, to terror” is a locus classicus. The poet claims no antecedents; his own creation is altogether “de nouveau”; one must be “absolutely modern.” The Dadaist Richard Huelsenbeck said “to make literature with a gun in my hand [was] my dream” and the Communist surrealist Breton cried “Revolution Now and Forever!” (318) Major trends in the avant-garde, including dada, surrealism, Marxism, Theater of Cruelty, situationism, etc. have shared this language as have popular music forms such as punk, heavy metal, and rap. Thus Tzara calls for “the abolition of the future” (13), “NO MORE WORDS” (24, and declares “Let’s start again” (62), and Amiri Baraka defines “the Black Artist’s role in America” as “destruction of America as he knows it.” (382)

Just as Judeo-Christian hermeneutic tradition has provided models for the more advanced trends in the theory of criticism, Judeo-Christian apocalyptic eschatology anticipated the excited rhetoric of the modern literary avant-garde. In fact litterateurs adapted their own use of rhetoric in many cases directly from religious discourse. The motives of this rhetoric have not changed since the days of Daniel who dealt in secret, night visions, and decoding the unintelligible mural text. The millenarian imagination tend s toward idealism, since the visionary’s ultimate reality often reverses the polarities of mundane received patterns: “the last shall be first,” etc. In the domain of political practice this may take the form of the revolutionary aspirations of the oppressed and marginalized. Perhaps the most radical aspect of this extraordinary challenge to the cognitive status quo is the millenarians’ skepticism of their own vocation, necessarily constituted wholly of fallen words. Christians no less than Jews are, in Rothenburg’s phrase, “exiled in the word.”

Of course, through most of human history the roles of poet and priest have been conflated. The vates likely does, teach and delight, to use the Horatian phrase, though his practice of these functions is markedly heightened, if not different in kind. The norm in oral cultures, this poetic claim to deliver truth from a higher realm is familiar, too, as part of a literate European tradition through the writings of early Jews and Christians, as well as through later Christian poets such as Caedmon, whose words were delivered direct from above. Poetic pretension to prophecy enjoyed a renaissance with Romantic theory and has flourished for the last century and a half or more in the rhetoric of the avant-garde. The very measures of the ancient Hebrew authors are exemplary for Smart, Whitman, a good share of the performers at the Nuyorican Poets Café, and Allen Ginsberg for whom “the only poetic tradition is the voice out of the burning bush.” Through hijinks and posturing, the dadaists as well sought what Tzara called “the central essence of things.” (2)

The didactic function of literature is twofold and its two elements are often opposed in a contradictory or complementary relation: a text will inevitably articulate the central beliefs of a dominant ideology while at the same time highlighting tensions and contradictions within that system. In a symmetrical way, national prophets are considered to be uncelebrated in their own land (Matthew 13:57. (Official hostility to seers is frequently expressed – see Zech. 13:3, Is. 2:6 and 8:19, Mic. 3:7, I Sam. 28:3 ff., Ex. 22:18, etc.). Established religions continue to proclaim the illusory nature of “this vale of tears” from the very seats of power. Apocalyptic rhetoric here asserts that the appearance of the world is contingent on a dualism that vanishes before the illuminated eye like a disappearing knot. Thus the divine voice proclaims, “I Alpha and Omega, the first and the last.” (Revelations 1:11), and “I am he that lieth, and was dead.” (Revelations 1:18) Elijah travels the vertical continuum onto heaven. As Isaiah had done before him (see Ch. 2 for example), Christ catalogues these explosive challenges: lucky are the unlucky, enemies are to be loved, the pious are hypocritical, to die is to love, the father is not the Father. Such paradox characterizes the prophetic voice. According to the gospel text such rhetoric is sublime because inspired: “he taught them having one authority, and not as the scribes.” (Matthew 7:29)

In the modern aesthetic realm this is paralleled in theory by Duncan’s prophetic voice “full of contradictions” (Waldman 3) or by Tzara’s claim that “if anyone says the opposite, it’s because he’s right.” (16) Here the voice from the underground, the bohemian counterculture has the same function as the ancient seer: to point to the unsuspected possibility, to imaginatively overturn idées reçues. Much religious discourse, and particularly the literature of prophecy and mysticism exploits the suggestive power of simple reversal (indeed, for the average theater-goer the charm of Wilde’s witticisms is that they do hold up upon second thought). This is indeed a particular tic of language to which Derrida refers as “hinge,” “fissure,” “turn,” “différance,” “the presence/absence of the trace” which constitutes its “play.” (71)

The political appeal of millennialism naturally arises as a version of this “world upside-down.” If terrorism is the atom bomb of the poor, symbolic manipulation is its heavy artillery. Revolutionary expectations are subdues in the more affluent and respectable Christian sects of our own age and even less apparent among Jews with the exception of the Lubavitchers whose billboards you may pass on New York’s Route 17, but early Christianity and the Essenes as well, expected imminent upheaval. Those whose world-view has been shaken by defeat and whose lives are oppressed by daily drudgery and degradation have always been attracted to the wish-fulfillment of individual personal salvation and the parallel social fantasy of a just world after the messiah’s second coming. In this they resemble the more recent adherents of the Ghost Dance, the Cargo Cults, and such Zulu messiahs as Isaiah Sembe. “The messianic movement,” according to Lanternari, “emerges from a crisis, to offer a spiritual redemption.” (309) Still today the millenarians are centered among the poor, the dissatisfied, their church groups meeting in storefronts, apartments, and rented rooms in the basement of the Holiday Inn.

There is no doubt that early Christianity appealed mainly to the underclass and to marginalized groups (such as women), and indeed any new cult is literally counter-cultural in its distinctness from the state-sponsored religious observances which even in Classical times, long before the divinization of the Roman emperors, constituted a ritual of political conformity. Immediate apocalyptic expectations that had been usual in the early church became les acceptable as Christianity became institutionalized with its own vested interest in the status quo. Already in the second century Montanus and his followers were suppressed in Phrygia, and the conversion of Constantine rendered the church established, making any sort of millenarianism a suddenly hostile party. Though early Christian writers such as Lanctantius and Commodianus encouraged fantasies of quite physical revenge (“torrents of blood shall flow” Cohn 28), Origen moved to suppress the collective vision of salvation, and Augustine insisted that the truths of Revelation were wholly symbolic and that the Kingdom of God already existed in the form of the Christian Church. Many of the scriptures relating to the apocalypse were declared non-canonical, though the supposed apostolic authorship of Revelation preserved its authority. The Christian eschatology of the last days was, however, too deeply root in Jewish messianic hopes and in gospel to be expunged, and its revolutionary potential survives in liberation theology and in the lyrics of Bob Marley, now played over most of the globe.

In spite of the fact that the aesthete is not the common man, poets may be radicalized no less than the working class when they are excluded from the centers of power. The displacement of writers from the courts and cathedrals since the rise of industrialism and the creation of a commodified mass culture in the twentieth century has made the revolutionary poet a figure so familiar as to be almost reassuring. Worldly impotence is expressed by super-grandiose words. The poet’s language on its surface makes extraordinary gestures: utter rejection of the present system, anger at being ignored, and the hum the reader always hears of the powerful dynamo of that aesthetic-religious tremendum for which they claim to speak.

However, the same rhetoric is equally susceptible to the opposite reading in which the very strength of the voice is a lament for the marginalization of true art or true religion, and where the writer’s apparently megalomaniacal arrogance masks a gripe over lack of audience. The manifestos of such writers, while they call for upheaval (as in Breton: “social coercion has had its day” [316]) may be read as complaints that, to use the phrases of two centuries in a single period, the literary “legislators of the human race” are so very “unacknowledged,” and the “bayonets of art” are, after all, “inconsequential.”
Language, as well as society, may be forced to the breaking point. Attic tragedy crests in inarticulate cries of agony, and the Hebrew prophets, too, found that words fail in the end to bear the burden of truth. The poet can only gesture dumbly toward ultimate reality: Daniel falls silent (10:15), the prophets utters unintelligible stammering (Isaiah 28:11), Ezekiel’s tongue sticks to the roof of his mouth (3:26), Zacharias is speechless after his vision (Luke 1:22). Those who witnessed Saul’s conversion were likewise silent (Acts 9:7) and the insufficiency of language is the most regular topos of mysticism from the nonsense syllables of the Delphic Pythia and the pseudo-Dionysian Divine Names through the Cloud of Unknowing. Speaking in tongues persists as the trance language of today’s Pentecostal churches.

In secular discourse, too, glossolalia dances in the singing of Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway, in Little Richard’s ecstatic screams which seems always poised between holiness and decadence. In modern poetry, of course, the unintelligible and the semi-intelligible lead the reader into realms inaccessible through ordinary discourse. The pure nonsense syllables of Hugo Ball’s Lautdichtung, Artaud’s wild cries in Pour en finir avec le jugement de dieu, the beast noises of Michael McClure, even the cooler incommunicativeness of Kostelanetz all testify to the same fatal weakness of words. Just as poetry itself is distinguished by its figurativeness and ambiguity, the most ambitious language can only admit defeat and commit a dramatic act of suicide insisting upon its inadequacy.

I have little space to document or discuss the verbal strategies that were developed to sinify this poetic truth, but they range from the techniques of all poetry (intertextuality and allegory in the broad old sense, saying other than what one means, the lie that is the truth of art) to the repertory of modernism (abstract language celebrated today by the so-called language poets, spontaneity such as aleatory work and automatic writing), and quasi-ritualistic performance art. The practices of Andre Breton, John Cage, and Jackson MacLow parallel archaic shamanic possession as well as Christ’s advice that his followers speak not with cunning, but indeed altogether without “premeditation” (Mark 13:11) for “it is not ye that speak, but the Holy Ghost.” When Jeremiah protests his inability, he is told to speak regardless with the expectation that divine words will be placed in his mouth. (Jeremiah 1:6-7)

Thus Christ says that symbolic, spontaneous language, what both the King James version and modern argot call “signifying,” allows him to communicate with his followers while remaining inscrutable to outsiders. (Matthew 13) But the “mysteries of heaven” will one day be known even to the impious, though not until a cataclysm so great that not one stone of civilization will be left atop another (Mark 13:2) He explicitly assures them that this apocalypse will come within the generation then alive. (Mark 13:30) This sense of immediacy was repeated also by the author of Revelation whose rich and wholly underdetermined visions also invite open-ended hermeneutic play.

Quite often the modernists explicitly invite spiritual values. Kandinsky’s classic text is, after all, Über das Geistige in der Kunst. Huelsenbeck’s Phantastische Gebete are, in fact, prayers for all their errant pyrotechnic eruption of images, and Kerouac insisted that “the beat generation is basically a religious generation.” There is a structural equivalence even in Satanic posturing like that of de Sade, Baudelaire, or Marilyn Manson. Recent poets have claimed not only to be seers of the future, but many have practiced the magical arts of automatic writing (Yeats, Breton, Tzara, William Burroughs while Jack Spicer argues for intuitive translation) and even numerology (MacLow, Cage).

The voice out of the burning bush which is constantly consumed though it marvelously persists is in fact an image of the word whose own instability threatens its disappearance even as it is constantly renewed in human use, and at the heart of every phrase is the enigmatic affirmation “I am that I am” (Exodus 3:14) and the collective repsonse: the people “would not obey, but thrust him from them.” (Acts 7:39)

Motives for the claims are similar in religious and artistic discourse: social marginalization, rising grandiosity as actual influence diminishes, a dream of freedom no less real for its oneiric quality. But more significant is the actual cry of the apocalyptic against the unsatisfying character of the world as it is and the savior’s mysterious redemption, and the corresponding poet’s song about the failure of the word and its paradoxical liberation in poetry.

Just as the teaching of the redemptive power of Christ’s blood is at once a lament for the fallen nature of the world and an assertion of the availability of a private or future solution, so the poet’s claim to a unique access to sublime knowledge simultaneously notes the inadequacy of language, even of the most artful words, and insists on the imminence of a radical reordering in which signification will be again immediate and whole. No language can support such significance. That which had always been seen “through a glass darkly” will be revealed. Islamic tradition maintains that, with the arrival of the eschaton all copies of the Koran will become blank and its words will vanish from memory. The world will then be perfect, all previous writing only provisional, discarded as superfluous in the face of Truth.

Millennial time-schemes are never cyclic. They seek in events not Nietzsche’s “eternal return” but rather the novum, that which has never before occurred, the coming of which will transform the post Edenic world. Just as history is the story of suffering since things happen only after the fall, literature consists of inadequate fallen words struggling to catch up with meaning. The wish-fulfillment of an end to suffering is analogous to the longing for a perfectly expressive verbal instrument. The fact that satisfaction lies just beyond the grasp animates desire in the verbal as well as in the carnal realm. Both the fallen world and the limits of language are expressed in a cry of pain, whether the new-born’s first sound, the prophetic gibberish by which Plato discerned the true prophet (Timaeus 71c) or the dadaists’ “hojohojo-lodomodoho.” (Huelsenbeck) Even with the giuft oid great grace, from our cleft in the rock, the poets, like Moses, have been able to glimpse only the “back parts” of God.

Breton, Andre. What is Surrealism: Selected Writings. Ed. Franklin Rosemont. New York: Monad, 1978.

Cohn, Norman. Cosmos, Chaos, and the World to Come. New Haven: Yale, 1993.

Huelsenbeck, Richard. “Tree,” tr. William Seaton. Chelsea (59), 1996.

Lanternari, Vittorio. The Religions of the Oppressed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963.

Marcus, Greil. Lipstick Traces. Cambridge: Harvard, 1990.

McGinn, Barnard. Visions of the End: Apocalyptic Traditions in the Middle Ages. New York: Columbia, 1979.

Rothenburg, Jerome and Harris Lenowitz (ed.). Exiled in the Word: Poems and Other Visions of the Jews from Tribal Times to the Present. Port Townsend (Washington): Copper Canyon, 1989.

Rothenburg, Jerome (ed.). Technicians of the Sacred. Garden City (NY): Doubbleday, 1968.

Stein, Gertrude. Writings and Lectures 1909-1945. ed. Patricia Meyerowitz. Baltimore: Penguin, 1971.

Walman, Anne and Marilyn Webb. Talking Poetics from the Naropa Institute. Boulder (Colorado): Shambhala, 1978.

More Portraits from the Floating World: Pa'ahssysy and Spector


Pa’ahssysy, we were told, was a kula or kief wino. In the mornings he washed cars, preferably for tourists, for an hour or two, and he contrived to stay stoned most of the rest of the time. Around mid-day he would enter Mufis’ hole-in-the-wall café in Fes's new town and call for mint tea. Mufis would continue reading the paper, then he might bark a few orders to his assistant Ahmed and proceed to stare into space for ten minutes, only then rising to make the tea. Pa’ahssysy could sit, then, satisfied, for half the day drinking his tea and smoking tiny bowls in an unhurried and consistent pace, blowing the ash to the floor. The slow service may have reflected Mufis’ feeling that Pa’ahssysy’s custom was a liability to his establishment, though he cared to go no further than to hedge a bit about the charity required of every Muslim.

Pa’ahssysy resembled an amiable if slightly pixilated bear, very dark with a woven cap ornamented with stars and a black three-quarter length pseudo-leather coat tied about the middle with grimy raveling string. His eyes, it must be said, were somewhat weary and blood-shot. He often slept in the park.

Pa’ahssysy spoke no French, so our communication was largely through gesture and expression. He delighted in repeating his name and laughing as though it were an excellent joke, but he also made sudden, apparently unmotivated, growls. If a police officer were to pass by on the street, he would assume a scowl and declare, “Yechh – police” and then laugh harder yet. His attitude must have grown from experience. He had recently spent six months in prison for accosting a woman on the street outside his carwash and making bold advances. When she resisted, he claimed to be chief of police. Ahmed told us that while he was playing cards, Pa’ahssysy had stolen his wallet (which must have had precious few coins) and vanished for a week or two.

Once we met Pa’ahssysy in the medina and he took us on a tour of the “shnen sbil” (a garden that felt to him like home), the Oued Fes, Moulay Idriss, the Bab Boujeloud. These place names became charms of friendship that day.

Shortly before we moved on, Pa’ahssysy made another of his periodic reappearances, now sporting a new blazer with a woven crest of Fenwick High School in Oak Park on the lapel.

Lester Spector

At breakfast on the rooftop of the Sita Guest House in Varanasi, as the waiters stood by with sticks to threaten monkeys eager to snatch a bit of food, Lester Spector told me he had been practicing meditation for thirty-six years. “But I’m a Jewish boy from the Bronx – I don’t expect to be enlightened – still it helps me to carry on.”

And the man certainly does carry on. During his career, apart from a year with a guru in Patna, he had been a lawyer in the US, later a law professor in Toronto and then in Western Australia where he had also sat for a decade as a Supreme Court judge and wrote a number of scholarly books on legal topics. Apart from these substantial professional achievements, he had studied Jungian psychology and had published a widely sold road novel about two unlikely seekers in India.

Australian tax authorities were pursuing him yet with an annoying civil suit seeking to recover a considerable sum. “I’ll win eventually, but it will take years. I occupy myself by making obstacles in my life this way.” This legal entanglement may account for his avoiding Australia in recent exploits.

He said he had spent a year doing work for a gangster-linked business in Moscow. When his intention to leave them emerged, they tried “at gunpoint” to reclaim his compensation. Though rather foggy about the details, his account had him outwitting the tough guys and making off with the money. He seemed at any rate somewhat flush.

His girlfriend was on her way back to Australia. He said his novel had been optioned by a major studio and he was scouting, among other things, locations for filming. Whatever it was he was after, his restless eyes did move in an unusually lively fashion.

Nigerian Songs

Bush Path

Far reaching murmurs in the tops of trees
as he walks the rubber groves. He sees
red mushrooms offering a choice of destinies.
Great woody pods like Titan’s sperm are strewn
about while juju offerings pipe a tune
in harmony with bentwood snares. It’s noon.
Does his last step release the woods’ loud cries?
Does his poised foot support time as it flies?
Give us now, wind, what our next step implies.

Niger Delta Postcard

A wary lizard tightens its throat to a fist.
Flies and roaches greet each other with winks.
Stoic trees accept the drifting mist.
Swamps sit sullen and stew more stinks.
The tough and yielding humid air
allows to none but death a chill –
but always it eats at the backside of care
and hawks toward the mouse of the spinal will.

After Rain

The one-legged chicken hops next door.
Winged ants take to the air.
A mouse dashes furtive along the floor.
The sun ignites my hair.
The shortwave sounds berserk.
Breath's suspended in this bush
where weaving spirits lurk.

Water's still and nothing's seen
but in the eye a fish's scale.
One drop of dew falls every hour
and desire chokes on its swallowed tail.

Tin roofs sloped down lonely
as the mist around them crept.
The boys seemed insubstantial,
though the ground around was swept,
and besom streaks and footsteps proved
the sand’s reality and moved
me to affirm that they were there,
but I, I walked a shadow in the air.

The woods were full of fragrance as he wrapped
a few choice peels and shadows, shreds of life,
to make some juju like the mind’s shotput.
(He hung the parcel under dripping fronds
and off a silent hippopotamus
slid and glided on with radiant wake.)
(Unlikely as the wish that’s fired aloft,
the hammer of the cocked brain, flashing home.)

The Rush of the Developing World

the grand Ughelli
oba of taxes
in the back seat
grunts ecstatic wheeze
sounds of prosperity
muffled by a three-piece woolen suit
and the Indian teacher
in transparent shirt and shades
glares at the wheel and accelerates,
we pass a huge rough lorry
filled with heavy timbers
and labeled “peace and love”
and a Mercedes
driven by a skinny young guy
driven by ambition
passes us
on the rutted lane and a half of dirt road.

Between Warri and Benin

slow and steady
bicycle legs pump
by the side of the road
(black and close-mouthed
British bikes with long memories
and brows that furrow
when they're parked out back);
slow and steady
burdened pedestrian steps
by the side of the road
as we fade in and out
of white Peugeot crises,
pass and are passed without cease,
by slow rusting auto ruins,
by roasting huts where blood's run thin;
slow and steady
produce people prone
respiring by their goods under the sun;
as others simply sit without excuse
their hearts beat slow and steady
and my heart fell into the heat
and arrived in Benin's red dust
and saw on the Great Circular Road
The Slow and Steady Hotel
at journey's end.