19 July 2017

Sneaking from Sunday to something superior

Dear diary,

I've felt low ever since my last entry, because I vowed long ago not to fight with my parents' religion anymore, and I didn't mean for the post to end up as a mudwrestling event, but I couldn't stomach Billy Sunday's version of spirituality. I feel that I did nothing more than repeat passages and points that I cite too often, like I've become a broken record. But maybe it's more important to remind ourselves of what is tried-and-true than to search for new knowledge so-called. There is nothing new under the Sun; so I should forgive myself and move on: it's OK to make mistakes.

Yet now my mind is flooded with thoughts about religion, how it dominates the present age and how the major few Western instances are based on books and yet how few people read those books. I spent (some would say wasted and I won't gainsay them) a lot of my life on reading religious scriptures. I'm attracted to the power of religion: I want to know where it comes from, how to get in on it. That's an ugly impulse, but I write it down so as to face it and transcend it. One thing I learned in my readings is that the actual books don't have much sway over their believers; only the interpreters of those scriptures – that is, the priests, the pastors, the apologists, the people who publish contemporary books about their holy book – they are the ones who the believers believe in: they're the ones who lure people to donate their lives. My old pastor constantly (albeit unknowingly) speaks and acts against the Bible, but never would he even dream of straying an inch from the teaching of Billy Sunday. Sunday and the men who crafted the fundamentalist Baptist college that my old pastor attended are the real "Law of the Lord"; although their mental habits would never allow them to attribute to their own will the ways of living and ideas that they convey, but to claim it's all from GOD and that it's the result of dutifully studying their Bible.

It's a nice, misty morning out there, by the way. I just looked out the window. It's the perfect weather for a monster sighting; I half expect to spot Dr. Frankenstein's creature climbing into our courtyard. Or if I lived near Loch Ness I'm sure I'd be able to take a fuzzy photo of the mystery. I like fog (whoops: I almost wrote "god"!) – it softens everything. Clear visuals are too oppressive; I hate sunny days. Mist and darkness are much better to emerge from. It's like the airport finale of Casablanca (1942): this morning is truly a good morning.

And I did the same thing with the Koran. I kept hearing people denigrate the beliefs of Islam, and I wanted to figure out exactly what the book said. So I continue, to this day, re-reading the Koran – tho I approach it as literature rather than as a believer – and what I take away from it never matches what the detractors blast it for. But neither does my study illuminate for me the current practices, beliefs, or lifestyle (etc.) of its believers. I assume that this is because Islam, like Christianity, is the result of...

What I'd much rather talk about is the religion that appeals most to me: Surrealism. It's not a religion; so I like to call it a religion. And André Breton is not its Christ or its Pope or its God or even its Most Important Prophet. But I love Breton, and I love reading his poetry and his manifestoes. Therefore he is a saint, an apostle. (Or add the prefix "anti-" to those titles, to make them superlative.)

I must read everything in English translation alas because I'm still a monoglot. Why do I feel that I need to make a list and rank titles? Simply repeating the names has the power of an incantation, for me; so maybe this is my version of chanting a spell: I get more pleasure from the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) than the Greek "New Testament," and I'm more natually attracted to that Testament's gospel accounts than I am to the Koran, but most of all I love Emily Dickinson's writings; Whitman's "Song of Myself"; William Blake's brief epics; Herman Melville's Moby Dick; the genius of Kafka; and just about everything from The Mind of America Ralph Waldo Emerson.

From the very little that I understand... Actually, let's say that I understand nothing at all, and that the account that I'll present here is too, too warped. So from what I understand, Breton ultimately excommunicated almost everyone from his marvelous cult, in the end. I'm even moved by THAT. Of course it's not the type of thing that one would want to experience first-hand; but as a detail of the movement's history, it feels just right. He's like Ahab, and all others funnel toward whalehood. Or like Klaus Kinski on the water in that last scene of Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972).

So when I say that I love Surrealism, I'm referring to a vaguely defined class, a group of personal favorites, who may or may not fit the bill. Pre-surrealists like Alfred Jarry and Raymond Roussel are included—even, in the latter's case especially, against their own wishes: from what I recall, Roussel recoiled from the Surrealists; so he would be crestfallen to learn that important cultural forces like I myself consider him a proto-practitioner, but this doesn't concern us; that's why authors who care about their reputations should never die. Or at least resurrect up into the outer darkness like the Nazarene.

In the end I would much rather be a Basel professor than God; but I have not dared push my private egoism so far as to desist for its sake from the creation of the world. You see, one must make sacrifices however and wherever one lives.

That's from one of the last letters that Nietzsche wrote before he slipped from our radar. It came to my mind because I misremembered him signing-off himself here as "The Crucified." But it turns out that the letter that he wrote the day before was the one he signed like that. In that one he said:

Sing me a new song: the world is transfigured and all the heavens are full of joy.

But I didn't come here to quote Nietzsche. I came to quote Breton. From our stack of books that we take to the park for our daily reading, my sweetheart and I recently finished Eagle or Sun? by Octavio Paz, and so I replaced it with André Breton's Manifestoes of Surrealism, a collection of his various prose writings (translated by Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane). Not that we always need to be reading exactly five books in tandem, but it's fun to force yourself to follow soft rules. We started out with Breton's 1929 publication called "Preface for a Reprint of the Manifesto"; and this passage spoke to my heart (all but the word "given" is italicized like so, in the original):

Here and elsewhere admission and denial are tightly interwoven. I do not understand why, or how, how I am still living, or, for all the more reason, what I am living. If, from a system in which I believe, to which I slowly adapt myself, like Surrealism, there remains, if there will always remain, enough for me to immerse myself in, there will nonetheless never be enough to make me what I would like to be, no matter how indulgent I am about myself. A relative indulgence compared to that others have shown me (or non-me, I don't know). And yet I am living, I have even discovered that I care about life. The more I have sometimes found reasons for putting an end to it the more I have caught myself admiring some random square of parquet floor: it was really like silk, like the silk that would have been as beautiful as water. I like this lucid pain, as though the entire universal drama of it had then passed through me and I was suddenly worth the trouble. But I liked it in the light of, how shall I say, of new things that I had never seen glow before. It was from this that I understood that, in spite of everything, life was given, that a force independent of that of expressing and making oneself heard spiritually presided—insofar as a living man is concerned—over reactions of invaluable interest, the secret of which will disappear with him. This secret has not been revealed to me, and as far as I am concerned its recognition in no way invalidates my confessed inaptitude for religious meditation. I simply believe that between my thought, such as it appears in what material people have been able to read that has my signature affixed to it, and me, which the true nature of my thought involves in something but precisely what I do not yet know, there is a world, an imperceptible world of phantasms, of hypothetical realizations, of wagers lost, and of lies, a cursory examination of which convinces me not to correct this work in the slightest.

This is what attracts me to Breton's stance: it's you, but it's not all you. Between you yourself and all else (the "it"), there is a part-you-part-it; or everything is a mixture of you-and-it. A reality under the reality. And the question is, how much can you identify with the "it"; what's the right proportion; and who or what is judging? (This is apparently why he abstains from revising his reprinting. He's not the same self-and-it; and it's not the same itself.) I'm talking about art, but I think that there is no real difference between art and life: they're one; so when you create an artwork, you give of yourself, and a measure of the "it" comes with you, and then the work is received and judged—parts of the "it" say yes or no to it—and this process offers hints about the world, truths about reality, because it all consists of echoes, of shards of mirrors refracting one another, and nothing can be done that hasn't already been done, yet at once every act is to a certain extent unprecedented. This is exhilarating.

Dada and Surrealism: I hear these movements often mentioned together. I'm not against this practice, as long as we sometimes take them apart as well. Tristan Tzara wrote the Dada Manifestos. I admire Tzara's version of Dada as much as Breton's Surrealism. It's not incumbent upon you to love one and hate the other. Yes you can serve two masters.

There's a lightness that I love about Tzara. There's a darkness that I love about Breton. Right now I want to praise Breton's dark mood. A mood that is dead-serious. Yet at the same time this gravity is a type of devious euphoria: a laughter-of-laughters so intense that it perpetuates silence. Normally I abhor seriousness, I associate it with boring gray non-creative responsible drudgery, but in this case I can't get enough of it, because it's put in service of THE BEYOND that's also directly within our soul. The marvelous near-far.

I take that last compound from Part Four of a three-part essay by Anne Carson called "Decreation: How Women Like Sappho, Marguerite Porete and Simone Weil Tell God." In an explanatory note, Carson introduces the subjects of her essay: one of its sections, she says, "concerns Marguerite Porete, who was burned alive in the public square of Paris in 1310 because she had written a book about the love of God that the papal inquisitor deemed heretical." Now here's the passage where Carson explains the coinage:

...in Marguerite Porete’s totally original terminology the writer’s dream of distance becomes an epithet of God. To describe the divine Lover who feeds her soul with the food of truth, Marguerite Porete invents a word: le Loingprés in her Old French, or Longe Propinquus in the Latin translation: English might say "the FarNear." She does not justify this word, simply begins using it as if it were self-evident in Chapter 58 of her book, where she is telling about annihilation. At the moment of its annihilation, she says, God practices upon the soul an amazing act of ravishing. For God opens an aperture in the soul and allows divine peace to flow in upon her like a glorious food. And God does this in his capacity as le Loingprés, the FarNear...

I didn't mean to catburgle Carson – it always feels uncomfortably plagiaristic (as opposed to comfortably so) when you quote a writer who's quoting another writer – but I felt that I needed to show where I found that term. For the record, I love Carson every bit as much as Breton and Tzara.

Now I can't recall where I was wanting this blog post to go, so I'll just announce "Mission Accomplished" and end it here. I gotta get something to eat; I'm starving, sitting on the sofa typing on this royal purple keyboard. Man cannot subsist on words alone. But I think that maybe you can live only on words. You should try it. Let's do it. Now we're in it to win it.

But as I was saying, one of the things I love most about Breton is his dark serious attitude about the pursuit of Surrealism, which to me means the pursuit of creative writing: the mind sorting and blending with the "it" so that it might blend with and sort further minds. How does Breton attain his midnight black sacred pitch? His following fragment feels more momentous than a pledging of marriage vows (its last adjective is precisely right); let it stand as my artist's maxim:

I shall simply reaffirm my unshakable confidence in the principle of an activity which has never deceived me, which seems to me more deserving than ever of our unstinting, absolute, insane devotion.

P.S.

I don't call this brief end-note "further reading" because anyone who enjoys the above entry will almost certainly not enjoy the tractate I published, for it offers a polar opposite style of writing (by the way, I call it a tractate or pamphlet rather than a BOOK, because it's small short and thin rather like a vacation brochure for Skull Mountain); nevertheless it's worth mentioning that I authored a pamphlet called Why I Am Not a Surrealist, which is available as an individual item or in either collection: Self-Amusements and 7 Spinelessnesses. It's a GREAT waste of time and money.

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