Hadewijch II, “You who want knowledge…”

The briefest description of my life: “in exile.” In some ways, it’s not so bad. I can’t say I lack materially, though I would like better economic security, e.g. a real job. I certainly have some very good friends and support. In other ways, I wouldn’t wish what I am going through on anyone. Today, I sat alone at a place where a number of people know me and was completely gripped by anxiety, feeling like I was not welcome in the least, like I had nothing to offer, like the opportunity to prove myself was doomed to failure. I don’t want to get into details here, but suffice to say I’ve started a private journal, one which I have high hopes for. I think the unusual experience I’ve had with not quite belonging, being taken for granted, being neglected by those obliged to me is worth noting down. I need to remind myself that there are situations where you really are being ignored or looked down upon, because those situations allow people who would be social rejects elsewhere to feel like they’re superior. I needed to know this years ago, when I was torturing myself more, accusing myself of selfishness.

Everything I’m complaining about above, of course, is indirect. I don’t know how I would survive in the Middle Ages, where discrimination was direct, where your role, according to everyone else, was dictated by God. I mean, I have an idea of how this works, unfortunately. But I can’t imagine being Hadewijch II. She’s resolved not only to survive, but to convey her mystical message, her inner truth. Hirshfield tells us that she was a Beguine, “laywomen who, prevented from joining convents, gathered together under their own authority, taking voluntary vows of chastity, poverty, and good works.” Later Beguines, Wikipedia claims, were persecuted if not executed by the Church for their mysticism. They would, in some cases, only beg for a living, like early Franciscans.

Let’s look at this poem, which Hirshfield feels demonstrates a truth about “spiritual maturity,” that “spiritual fulfillment is not to be found outside the door of the self:”

"You who want knowledge..." (from Poetry)
Hadewijch II (tr. Jane Hirshfield)

You who want
see the Oneness

There you
will find
the clear mirror
already waiting.

I will readily confess that You who want knowledge, see the Oneness within is not something I am eager to write myself, despite my New Agey rhetoric, and probably something I wouldn’t take too seriously from a book written nowadays. Again, I imagine the potential price Hadewijch II could pay for this sort of activity is death. Persecution does not depend on what you say, write, or do. It depends on whether someone wants to make you a target or not. When you make yourself more visible, you’re more of a target.

However, the first stanza does contain a bit more than high-sounding common sense. There are plenty of people I know who think knowledge is simply being right about a number of trivial issues. You can see this especially with people who don’t read or read badly. I knew a professor who gave exams which asked about authors and issues from the footnotes of texts he assigned. If you’re with a spiritual community, perhaps one in large part that doesn’t read, I would think a few people still believe they have to prove themselves right all the time. On a slightly higher level, people who are more earnest about knowledge can often forget what unites their endeavors. Not so much a theory about the nature of things, but their “Oneness within.” This could be whatever they think links what they know, whatever desires they’ve been unconsciously acting from. It could also be remembering that you exist independently of what you know.

So what exactly is that Oneness? Without the second stanza, I might be tempted to say “a sense of self.” Hadewijch II radicalizes that notion: There you will find the clear mirror already waiting. All that happens when you look inward is that your surface reflects back at yourself. This seems strange — learning how we physically look in public, what looks of ours work and which don’t, takes time. It takes practice with an actual mirror. Learning how we appear to others in a fuller sense, how we react, how we cultivate certain feelings, how we communicate and reason aloud: that not only takes more time, but an incredible presence and self-awareness. The latter is a form of knowledge, sure, but it does not seem to be the same thing as asking what kind of properties liquids have, what the best regime would look like, or what knowledge of God is.

But Hadewijch II is on to something. The unknowable self is the heart of things. When you look inward, you ask how you know, and are reflected to yourself a certain way. You can use the question of unity of appearance to advance self-knowledge. In her brief account, it draws you inward, gets you to seek yourself as a unity, and then shows you yourself from a certain perspective. You get relevant, almost certain knowledge from that mirror.

Blog in Review: “I’m happy I’m open to inspiration,” 8/28/17

About 2 weeks ago, I wanted to read a book on van Gogh, but got stuck on one painting, “Ward in the Hospital in Arles.” I wrote a post which I hope to expand into something much larger. Please do take a look at it, or at least the painting. I can’t really do justice to the depth of van Gogh’s vision. He understands how our very vision has no neutrality: it sees hope or terror almost immediately.

I also spent a lot of time with Jane Hirshfield’s poem guide, “Spiritual Poetry.” I don’t think I’m done with it yet. She not only picked excellent poems, but she commented on them in ways designed to get the reader thinking. From her short essay, I wrote on Izumi Shikibu’s description of a house battered by frightening sounds, Li Po’s famous “Zazen on Ching-t’ing Mountain,” and, my most recent entry, Cavafy’s “Che Fece… Il Gran Refiuto.” I don’t know that I’ve written anything particularly good, but I’m happy I’m open to inspiration. Maybe these thoughts will become something good someday.

I covered two topics through Dickinson. First, erotic love — as one enthusiastic Twitter user said, a “thirsty” Dickinson. See: Emily Dickinson, “My River runs to thee” (162) & “Distance — is not the Realm of Fox” (1155). Then I moved to the problem of bad memories, which Dickinson treats through a description of sunlight granting darkness a variety of light and colors as it fades away. See: Emily Dickinson, “Fairer through Fading — as the Day” (938).

Finally, I am trying to work on craft. I’d like every word, sentence, paragraph to be carefully chosen and meaningful. A prompt I encountered asked pretty bluntly “Why do you write?” and I realized I could give that question a lot more thought: Why I Write.

My thanks to all of you for your readership and support. More of you are sharing these posts and reaching out to me, and that feels really good.

C.P. Cavafy, “Che Fece… Il Gran Refiuto”

Dante’s Inferno, Canto III.59-60, tells of “those ill spirits both to God displeasing and to His foes.” The internal torment of not feeling decisive tears even the best of us apart, but it is hard to conceive the paralysis of those neutral in a battle between no less than heaven and hell. Dante, for his part, describes their torture thus:

These wretches, who ne’er lived,
Went on in nakedness, and sorely stung
By wasps and hornets, which bedew’d their cheeks
With blood, that, mix’d with tears, dropp’d to their feet,
And by disgustful worms was gather’d there. (III.60-64)

Nearly all of this seems cartoonish. Humiliated, they are always stung, left to bleed and cry and make a disgusting mess wherever they go. However, Dante possesses full command of his art. He can certainly depict quiet regrets concerning lost friends and lovers or the pain of exile from a home for which one fought. Neutrality ultimately centers on self-doubt — “did I truly make a decision?”, “should I have made a decision?”, “can I decide anything?” — which is best conveyed by his statement that these wretches “never lived.” The worry that we’ve lost something essential to life, to living, drives the pain of constant self-questioning.

Dante does recognize one of the shades. I saw / And knew the shade of him, who to base fear / Yielding, abjured his high estate (III.55-57). Tradition holds this to be Celestine V, a Pope who abdicated the papal throne. I move we do not immediately accept “base fear” as an adequate descriptor of someone who willingly rejected being the vicar of Christ on Earth. As I’ve tried to show above, being “neutral” is all too relatable, and those of us who’ve made decisions which have brought forth bad fruit or no result at all wonder if it was better not to decide in the first place. For now, let’s move on to Cavafy’s poem, which focuses on what it means to make such a great decision without the distorting rhetoric of a pagan manliness underlying Christian leadership. The title of the poem is a direct reference to the shade Dante sees:

Che Fece… Il Gran Refiuto (from Poetry)
C.P. Cavafy (tr. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)

For some people the day comes
when they have to declare the great Yes
or the great No. It’s clear at once who has the Yes
ready within him; and saying it,

he goes from honor to honor, strong in his conviction.
He who refuses does not repent. Asked again,
he’d still say no. Yet that no—the right no—
drags him down all his life.

For some people the day comes when they have to declare the great Yes or the great No — “for some people” stands awkward. “Great Yes” and “great No” parade not only majesty but universality. Their declaration carries eternal weight; they can permanently decide who one is; how could they possibly be the province of a few? I suspect their declaration does not only belong to saints, philosophers, or kings, but to all of us. The overarching question is why for some what is most sacred stays hidden, as if true belief, knowledge, or revelation cannot be shared, and for others it becomes public.

Regarding publicity, Cavafy makes a very strong claim: It’s clear at once who has the Yes ready within him; and saying it, he goes from honor to honor, strong in his conviction. “The Yes ready within him” is yes to what, exactly? If I say that there are people who try their best to blindly follow what society says or inspires, and that such people are always rewarded, I’m lying. Conventionality often makes human sacrifices of those most dedicated to it. Then again, Cavafy does not say what finally happens to someone who pronounces “the great Yes.” Maybe he eventually does find ill repute and dies miserably. What is clear is that for some, “the great Yes” must be praiseworthy.

“The great No” is unusual. He who refuses does not repent. Asked again, he’d still say no. Yet that no—the right no— drags him down all his life. “He who refuses does not repent” harshly judges — it implies a “not so great Yes or No” where someone eventually decides to lead a wholly conventional life, but with a few doubts. “The great Yes” isn’t truly a conviction, but “the great No,” while difficult to isolate, is the only conviction. It does not admit of repentance; it defines one’s whole life, with willingness given grudgingly at times. Yet something about it is essentially right.

Cavafy has brought us to a very strange place, where deeply held, life-defining belief grounds itself upon nothing except a refusal. “No to all of this,” so to speak. This seems to be some kind of profound nihilism, easily contrasted with the soft nihilism of “the great Yes” and its not so great incarnations. Does it justify neutrality? Only inasmuch neutrality is a deliberate attempt to overthrow the question posed by the world. It lends itself to intense, privately held belief coexisting with a fierce skepticism. One contains heaven and hell within oneself. On that note, it might be thought that the papacy would have to be rejected precisely because of the privacy of one’s conscience. Not that one would reject the papal throne because he didn’t believe, but because belief itself is the fundamental fact of his existence.


Dante, “The divine comedy of Dante Alighieri: Hell, Purgatory, Paradise,” tr. Henry F. Cary from The Harvard Classics, ed. Charles W. Eliot. Vol. 20. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14. Accessed via http://www.bartleby.com/20/103

Emily Dickinson, “Fairer through Fading — as the Day” (938)

Bad memories such as regrets don’t strike in a flash of pain and go away. No, they linger, exhausting their holder, and not just because they’re labelled bad. They consistently tease with the notion they secretly hold some good; I twist and turn them over and over wondering if they’re actually beautiful. Dickinson starts her poem below as if someone close to her is dying — Fairer through Fading, she begins — but the second stanza seems to indicate an internal struggle, one that might concern loss in a more general sense:

Fairer through Fading — as the Day (938)
Emily Dickinson

Fairer through Fading — as the Day
Into the Darkness dips away —
Half Her Complexion of the Sun —
Hindering — Haunting — Perishing —

Rallies Her Glow, like a dying Friend —
Teasing with glittering Amend —
Only to aggravate the Dark
Through an expiring — perfect — look —

Fairer through Fading — as the Day / Into the Darkness dips away — she’s looking outside when the sun has almost completely gone down, but remnants of its light streak the sky. Her day looks more beautiful to her this way. At once, I think of someone dying, how we try to think of them in the best light possible. But I also can’t help think of something more everyday, e.g. those nightmare stories many of us have about our jobs. How many feel like a whole workplace works against them, or the customers always harass and abuse them, or nothing quite goes right because devotion to an institution and its standards means nothing compared to making a quick buck and going home. To say this stuff is “stress” makes it sound like its acceptable; to call it “trauma” feels like giving it too much credit, though it certainly is trauma in some cases. Still, we encounter stories of people literally shaken by their workplace daily.

Dickinson takes a dark time and wonders about what she sees, how light affects it. Half Her Complexion of the Sun — / Hindering — Haunting — Perishing — she does not speak of darkness causing hindering and haunting. Only the sun could perish with the onset of darkness, which provokes us to wonder how the sun hinders and haunts.

Right before “perishing,” the sun Rallies Her Glow, like a dying Friend — / Teasing with glittering Amend. It doesn’t just make the darkness seem beautiful, but gives “glittering Amend,” like as if all that was wrong before is truly right. That this rallying is “like a dying Friend” removes the reasoning about dealing with death directly from “Fairer through Fading.” This poem is not about the death of those closest to us, or tragedies which bring us closer to those we did not know. It’s about dealing with our more general sense of pain and loss, how we’re tempted to see a false beauty that can hinder and haunt us.

Some might identify seeing the night sky glitter with trying to resolve one’s day rationally. They might argue that if we just call a spade a spade and not bother with reflection, problems of overthinking can be avoided. However, to take one example, there’s not much overthinking involved when we turn on people close to us while letting others abuse us. This happens fairly regularly, and is a clear signal we let things get out of hand through “Fairer with Fading” — those whose memory doesn’t “fade” are taken for granted. Another example, possibly: the horrible customers at work getting more attention than one’s own mother. Etc. Ultimately, the sun’s dying light results in aggravation of the dark: Only to aggravate the Dark / Through an expiring — perfect — look. What good our day, our bad memories, our regrets, our loss, teased us with makes the dark more powerful, and in doing so, gives us an ever more beautiful, elusive image, “an expiring — perfect — look.”

What are we really looking at? We’re turning our bad experiences into no less than an idol. This is not psychologically healthy behavior, to say the least. I guess you could sum up Dickinson’s teaching this way: not only do the memories we want to keep become fairer through fading, but so do memories we want to go away. We want to hang on to whatever we get in this life, because fundamentally, we want our lives to be fairer through fading.

Li Po, “Zazen on Ching-t’ing Mountain”

Spirituality wraps itself in ridiculous guises. Gurus atop mountains; sayings paradoxical to the point of nonsense; otherworldly or overblown claims; practice seemingly contrived for practice’s sake. I want to jot down a few thoughts about that last manifestation, spiritual practice. Li Po’s poem seems to be an end for it; not quite a goal, but the limit of the thing, the limit being that which defines what something is in the world. But initially, the poem also looks too sparse to be anything, and one might be tempted to dismiss it as inflated, high-sounding language which could lead the audience astray.

If I didn’t have a specific problem on my mind, I probably wouldn’t even try to understand what’s below. As it stands, I’ve spent a lot of time in recent weeks wondering about how reading works or doesn’t work. (You can see some of those thoughts in the June post on Nietzsche.) I read far too much, and it’s hard for me to remember the sheer number of details which wash over my small brain. I don’t even know that I want to remember all of them — what I usually want is a better sense of what’s relevant, what takes priority, what I need to be sensitive to. That’s certainly not the height of enlightenment. At best, it’s an attempt at a refined wisdom. At worst, it devolves into claims of superiority over petty details.

I do believe there’s a vastly higher use for reading, not unconnected to grappling with what’s important. But a prerequisite or corequisite for that use might involve a most radical, unconventional simplification. The birds have vanished down the sky — no civilization, only one living thing, when these lines begin:

Zazen on Ching-t’ing Mountain (from Poetry)
Li Po (tr. Sam Hamill)

The birds have vanished down the sky.
Now the last cloud drains away.

We sit together, the mountain and me,
until only the mountain remains.

The birds vanish. No heed is given them as they disappear entirely into the sky. The sky becomes something else, itself — now the last cloud drains away. Without birds, without clouds, it ceases to be something natural, and is perhaps removed even from the laws of physics. The sky simply stands a perceptual field, drained of all content. If it shows blue or is lighted, it is a field which is a predicate more than a being. It is like a color (“blue”) or a condition (“bright”) which can be used to build a perceived object.

Mind becomes aware of how it creates the world as the time of the poem progresses. The sky will turn black. Again, this is beyond civilization, beyond the natural. To go further, we sit together, the mountain and me, until only the mountain remains demonstrates a profound awareness of death. This is not quite Socrates’ joke toward the end of the Phaedo, where he says the afterlife could be a realm where red is really red, where there are only predicates and no beings. It isn’t a joke. What underlies the power of human reason is human finitude just as much as any so-called eternal truth.

To clear the mind and become aware of how much the world is a percept is itself a grand truth. Grand truths are overwhelming mysteries, nothing more. Before death, the mountain is felt. It too can be thought a perceptual field, but it won’t reduce as the sky did. It holds something which stands outside of our existence while supporting our existence. Yes, this sounds a lot like transcendental idealism, but transcendental idealism resolves something like this: geometry and physics can be known because, in a way, they’re built into our perceptions. The sciences are certain, general laws of ethics can be had, there are aesthetic claims which can be advanced.

This poem challenges your going back to the world and attempting to apply your rational powers to it. If you truly understand how contingent everything is, how do you deny the power of that mystery? Of course, you have to go back to the world — you will become a skeleton upon that mountain, or you will leave it sitting where it is. Not an ethical teaching, but a disposition is advanced. The attitude with the most potential simply undoes the most artificial, useless conventions, just as it can set aside those aspects of the natural world which are unnecessary. It is an attitude of great humility, appreciating that knowledge goes far because we can know so little.