Thursday, November 30, 2006

Via Negativa

What is absent is often most conspicuous. This notion has stayed with me since I reread Daisy Miller several years ago. The title character in Henry James’ novella remains a vacuum onto which Winterbourne and others project needs and desires. Daisy is no one, and then she dies. This remained a favorite James strategy, and it defines Samuel Beckett’s work at least from the time of Watt, a novel hovering around the aptly named Mr. Knott who never makes an appearance.

At least one tradition in Christianity, called negative theology or via negativa (“the negative way”), has turned God into a sort of cosmic Daisy Miller. God, by definition is ineffable and defies language, a feeble human creation. Those following the via negativa attempt to express knowledge of God by describing what He is not – a rhetorical strategy known as apophasis (“to say no”). In one of his sermons, Meister Eckhart said: “God is nameless, because no one can say anything or understand anything about him.”

This week I have randomly happened upon three poems that express this idea. “Via Negativa” is by R.S. Thomas, the Welsh poet-priest:

“Why no! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
Between stars. His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left. We put our hands in
His side hoping to find
It warm. We look at people
And places as though he had looked
At them, too: but miss the reflection.”

The Scottish poet Don Paterson translated and adapted a selection of Antonio Machado’s poems from the Spanish. The final poem in The Eyes is “To the Great Zero,” Like the Thomas poem, it’s a sonnet of sorts:

“When the I Am That I Am made nothingness
and, as He deserved, went back to sleep –
day had night, and man companionship
in woman’s absence. He was bored to death.
Fiat Umbra! And on that godless Sabbath
man laid his first thought: the cosmic egg,
chill and pale and filled with weightless fog,
hovered like a face before his face.

“The zero integral, that empty sphere:
only when our heads are in the air
is it ours. So now the beast is on his feet
and the miracle of non-being complete –
let’s rise, and make this toast: a border-song
to forgetting, amnesty, oblivion.”

Paterson writes in his afterword: “The plan, in selecting from Machado’s work, was to take a leisurely stroll down the via negativa; with Machado as guide, a less bleak route than the brochures describe. The occasional outbreak of negative theology (not to be confused with negative faith) in the written word is characterized by a certain snowblindness, in that it plays – in a way that can be dangerous for the constitution of the poet, and dangerously boring for the reader – far closer to the annihilating light than other poetries.”

Finally, I read “Absence Inside an Absence,” from Chickamauga, by Charles Wright. Here are the opening lines:

“We live in the world of the voice,
not in the world of the word,
According to John the Solitary –
Our lives are language, our desires are apophatic,
The bush in flame is the bush in flame,
Imageless heart, imageless absence between the hearts.”

The idea is appealing to writers because of its implicit challenge. Our minds, like nature, abhor a vacuum. Writerly hubris drives us to fill emptiness with words – a mug’s game impossible to stop playing.

In "Poem Almost Wholly in My Own Manner," from Black Zodiac, Wright writes:

"Poetry's what's left between the lines --
a strange speech and a hard language,
It's all in the unwritten, it's all in the unsaid...."


Anonymous said...

"nothing abandons itself"

Anonymous said...

Or perhaps these lines from LEAVES OF GRASS:

There is that in me- I do not know what it is- but I know it is in me.

Wrench’d and sweaty- calm and cool then my body becomes, I sleep- I sleep long.

I do not know it- it is without name- it is a word unsaid,
It is not in any dictionary, utterance, symbol.

Something it swings on more than the earth I swing on,
To it the creation is the friend whose embracing awakes me.

Nancy Ruth said...

A mind-disturbing post. Thanks

David Hodges said...

That's clever about Daisy Miller, and what you say about Beckett's Knott is also apt. Interesting, too, that you start with Beckett's narrators compelled to address The Not, and circle back, at the end of your piece, to the world of noting but voice, filling the emptiness with words. I like this place you've made. Think I'll come back!