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Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

(Note: FOR AN IDENTICAL PRESENTATION WHICH INCLUDES SOME PHOTOS, PLEASE SEE THE FOLLOWING: link )

1. Simple lines

Suppose you read the following brief poem about eros:

“I don’t know what I should do: two states of mind in me … (36)
I’m in love! I‘m not in love!
I’m crazy! I’m not crazy!

Suppose you reread it. Such simple few lines composed with such few simple words. What would you tend immediately to think? Would this be a candidate for a Daily Deviation here at dA? It seems to me not, for a multiplicity of reasons. I believe dA is at times too sophisticated. I tend to think most of us would smilingly frown upon it; it sounds too juvenile. Perhaps we would even tend to feel a tad of sarcastic sympathy within, we might even mock the words a bit. We laugh a bit at them; though perhaps the joke is, as we shall see, on us. When one is not in love, irony towards the other rules; yet, when in love, such irony is the least of our concerns.

But back to this simple poem. We already know so much about love and the erotic that we might in fact fail to see, to touch, to smell, to conceptualize. More philosophically, we modern westerners tend to think we have truly liberated human sexuality to its fullest expression. But this might just be simply a dangerous illusion as Michel Foucault dramatically points out in the first volume of his powerful The History of Sexuality. Although he is one of the strongest defenders of postmodernism —-a movement which criticizes the tyranny of modern reason—— there Foucault radically criticizes the connection between modern sexual liberation and the false sense of overall liberation we assume we have reached from the deeper western roots found in our confessional practices.

But back to the poem. Does it not seem altogether naïve? These words seem more a youthful description than a poem; they merely recount a very personal moment which most of us keep to ourselves. But let us not be so quick to dismiss it; maybe its apparent simplicity demands of us an effort which goes unnoticed at the start. Line-art, as I have argued elsewhere, does so similarly. What, then, does this naïve poem demand? That we situate ourselves in the time of the lover who loves; that time is the now of our existence. To remember a love is not be in love. To demand a love to the future is not to love fully. We humans can only fall in love in the now, we can only love in the present presence of the now. But we ALL know this; so, what makes this poem so special? Why tell us about it? If I had written it, I would probably not have much to say. But here is the thing, it was written by a lover, perhaps the greatest woman lover of them all. These simplistic words were written by Sappho, one of the greatest poets in human history. Courageously, she has marked down these dramatic words to posterity so that we can situate ourselves in the “now” of the erotic. But besides, all her words carry an erotic charge which has not dissipated over the centuries. In her poetic lines she confronts us and reminds us of the complex nature of erotic life as expressed in our deepest longings and complex desires as humans.

But let us go back to the poem. Why then is this poem so famous if it is so elusively naïve, even premature and incomplete? Therein precisely lies its force. Its simplicity deludes us into thinking that no complexity is there to be found. Its simplicity masks purposely. This journal tries to investigate this simplicity. It briefly seeks to investigate some of the many questions regarding erotic desire and its puzzles as seen by Sappho. One could even go so far as to say that this type of exercise is required in order to deepen the discussion on sexuality in our societies. We constantly hear that we, as a society, have failed in our own erotic education. I truly believe we have failed and will fail, unless we take seriously the task of understanding desire beyond the technical and biological aspects we emphasize as moderns. That type of technical education and practice speaks thus: your sexual organs are such and such; they are located here and here; you put this there; you put this on like so; if you touch here, then ; have any problems? Take this… …. ; and so on.

Instead of defending such crass reduction, an investigation on the metaphors of erotic love becomes central to understanding ourselves; even to deciding what type of life we choose to live. For the questions around the erotic involve a choice of life. Such an investigation will touch on Sappho here as one of the representatives of the views of eros as defended by artists. But this investigation requires a much deeper understanding of the challenge to artists set forth by Plato’s and Aristotle’s combined understandings of desire. Art and philosophy are THE privileged avenues to desire. Exploring them both, opens us to ourselves in a broader, less illusory fashion. Women like Martha Nussbaum lead the way here with her important The Fragility of Goodness. But perhaps the tension between both areas will eventually lead us to defend and, actually live, altogether different erotic lives.

Shaken by coming to recognize that what we thought was an irrelevant poem, we want to take another chance with it. Don’t we also sometimes want to take another chance with an unforgettable lover? We want to let ourselves be opened by the poem, Sappho wishes to open us and close us repetitively, teaching us the motions of our desiring natures. We must be ready to open ourselves and close ourselves in the rhythm of her “simple” words. For her, we must be ready to love as lovers do. For her we must be ready to risk.

2. Deceptive simplicity

So let us return to these opening lines which we now know have a poetic backing like few others. The poem, once again, reads:

“I don’t know what I should do: two states of mind in me …
I’m in love! I‘m not in love
I’m crazy! I’m not crazy!”

First she tells us, “I do not know what I should do.” Don’t you remember this? You might answer, “Yes, I do.” But unfortunately, I must tell you that, strictly speaking, you cannot.. “Why? What do you mean?”, you protest. Part of the reason is this: if you CAN remember, then you are NOT in love in this moment. For in love, says Sappho in this poem, you just do not know anymore! Perhaps this is why we can never quite remember how badly it went previously the last time we loved, when we ACTUALLY fall in love again NOW. Repetitive loses accumulate as we cannot grasp what is going on each time.

And moreover, if in fact you CAN remember having felt this, then —-really, really—- you don’t remember. What you are trying to say just means, most probably, that you are now in love. Only in being in love do these words touch you as they should, for in love you are no longer yourself. As Sappho says, in love you do not know what you should do. And if you think you do, Sappho thinks you might just be deluding yourself.

Or in other words, of course, when we are NOT in love, or when we think we are assured the love of another —–which is a very odd thing to think/desire— we simply shrug our shoulders when faced with such “immature” poetic words. “Yeah I know, I remember when I fell in love”, you say to yourself. But in doing so you confuse what you ONCE felt in the PAST with what it is ACTUALLY to be IN love NOW. By projecting the “then” of love into the present moment, you certainly feel secure. This is the characteristic of the worst of lovers, says Plato in his beautiful Phaedrus. Plato finds this tyrannical type of love exemplified in the story of King Midas. Everyone knows his story; he tried to control the temporality of love, and failed.

In seeking such security, the indecision of Sappho’s poem seems juvenile and unworthy. But, “not to know”; do you remember how this felt so as to liberate YOU to the full presence of the present instant of loving now? Stricken by the other’s enigmatic presence, Sappho allows us —or better yet, makes us— feel what this presence does to us through her words. What occurs in the “now” of the erotic according to Sappho?

In the appearance of the erotic other, I lose all possibility of thoughtful presence. This Sappho affirms. Little wonder we mock those in love; we humor ourselves through their lost capacities. This is nowhere more poignantly revealed than in The Damask Drum, a must read for anyone interested in erotic desire. This is a short play by Japanese writer Yukio Mishima in which a poor and old janitor named Iwakichi, claims to fall in love with a 20 year old beauty called Kayoko. The perplexing dynamic of their affair reveals much about the way we mock those who lose themselves in love. But be that as it may, we have ALL at one time or another actually mocked those in love. For, you see, they truly seem out of their wits! They actually seem irresponsive, as in a dream. They are slow to reaction and for this we taunt them. They can’t even keep in their saliva at times! Even their bodily functions are a total loss!

“Not knowing” in that moment of the erotic encounter; to be simply grabbed by the force of a presence which remains even when not there. The absence of the loved one does not mitigate in the least the feeling. And worse yet, “not knowing” carries with it crucial problems in real life. “Not knowing” ourselves, ceasing to be who we thought we were, our actions cease to be coherent. For responsible actions require some kind of identity that affirms such decisions. No wonder lovers are irresponsible! The planned coherence once available to answer the question “ who am I?” evades us in this instance. We are paralyzed as rarely we are. This is why Saphho adds that her not knowing involves primarily not knowing what I should do. Once you know what you should do, you have lost contact with Sappho’s poem. Perhaps you seek such security, but ironically such security erases the moment which held the erotic tension in its extreme possibility. You get back to the security of yourself, but perhaps this is precisely the way to lose yourself.

But this is odd, isn’t it? How come you do not know what you should do? Well, we feel like saying to the lover, “Just kiss him or decide not to kiss him. Or send him a denial. Just get it over with”, we are frequently advised by friends. But that, precisely, is NOT the point. In contrast, Sappho asks us to remain in the presence of the moment in which the other comes into our view as a lover we desire intensely. But to remain there, this is almost impossible in our first loves, for powerful enigmatic forces override us, as we shall see. Perhaps in reading and understanding Sappho, other more enticing possibilities might appear for us.

But remaining in that privileged instant, we are —- paradoxically— conscious we no longer are fully conscious of ourselves. I do not know what to do in that moment which many seek to avoid, to forget. To this we shall return. For captivated by it, we can no longer do anything as we did. In a sense, I know I should, but I can’t; in another sense, I know I shouldn’t’ but I find that can and I will. And a question arises; is Sappho speaking here of the moral limitations of social life? Not in the least. That is not her concern here. Her point, instead, is that eros is a kind of assault; we tremble, we feel uneasy, and yet –paradoxically—we desire to feel so. Eros pushes us besides ourselves, and in doing so we, says Sappho, risk our very own personal and uniquely created identity.

This is confirmed by the simple words that follow. The expression of this enigmatic and unexpected entrance brings about severe division and fragmentation. He who was once one, has NOW become two. Knowing yourself divided, a fall of consciousness that both opens the world to new possibilities, but risks the very foundations of who we have become. Sappho adds in the poem, as if to validate our previous words:

“I’m in love! I’m not in love!
I’m crazy! I’m not crazy!”

To be crazy is to lose it, to lose one’s wits; to remain in the realm of the metaphoric as against the unerotic realism of the everyday real. What we have suspected above is revealed as true. Knowing she cannot act, she nonetheless begins by accepting this rupture and division. The penalty of not being ruptured lies in the constant immersion in the ordinary world of constant personal presence. Many of us live, prefer to live, without such disruptions all our lives. We can actually BE with another and yet not love as Sappho claims we should. But some of us chose not to live so. Such are true artists, such are true philosophers. Instead of the safety of the known, the artistic lover embarks in another type of self-affirmation which might end badly for her. The poetess knows it is unreasonable to do so, to “chose” to do so. That is why she cries out of two severed minds that she is in love and that she is not, that she is not crazy and that she is.

These words have the sound of a certain truth to them, they reveal the stance of the person who has fallen in love. To fall in love is indeed to fall; it is to become another who no longer is as he was. To be in love. To become two; to be unable to decide. In love we are and we cease to be. For we love and we long to be with another, and yet that other who beckons us makes us fear we will be utterly lost to ourselves. But without such erotic presence the loss might be double! Divided we stand as we long to be and not to be in front of her. How peaceful it was when time was not rushing forth in the now. How peaceful it is to simply remember as if one had once lived such a life and had gotten over it.

Emily Dickinson, also a woman, knew of this kind of love. In her No. 18 she points out to the very same dilemma of internal division and strife:

“Heart! We will forget him!
You and I —- tonight!
You may forget the warmth he gave —
I will forget the light!

When you have done, pray tell me
That I may straight begin!
Haste! Lest while you’re lagging
I remember him.”

Of course, Dickinson speaks once the affair has come to the painful realization of the final loss. Sappho cannot accept this. It is for her, in a sense, a kind of cheating. Instead, Sappho asks us to remain in the now of the moment in which the touch of the other’s caress reaches us and we are paralyzed physically, conceptually and metaphorically. This journal stems from such decisions in my life.

No wonder Sappho’s words endure in their utmost simplicity as the barest –in the sense of most naked— expressions of the erotic instant. Erotic desire as unnamable cannot be named in too many lines; Sappho reminds us of this. Her courage lies in not being capable of denial. Her courage lies in opening herself, and ourselves, with her erotically charged words to the presence of eros in our lives. If ever there was a force that could make us transform our settled dispositions, here we have found it at last. And how we yearn for such change, we artists and philosophers.

3. Erotic assault

Romanticism as an artistic movement saw nature as somehow intimately connected to our most basic human desires. It was in and through nature that we found the most complete fulfillment available to us as natural human beings. For the romantics we sought nature to become whole once again, to overcome the temporary division which separates us as humans from the rest of the natural world; even to overcome the divisions within ourselves between reason and feeling, between thought and creative expression. In a sense a contemporary and dramatic portrayal of this dream is the stunning documentary The Grizzly Man in which a young man seeks to become one with the bears of Alaska. Of course, there are different types of romantic positions available; from the naïve kind found in Goethe’s Werther, moving to more complex ones such as the one found in Wordsworth magically healing poetry. To repeat, to bridge the gap between us humans and the natural becomes the cornerstone of their position. (See Taylor’s Sources of the Self)

But Sappho thinks otherwise. Sappho’s poetry reveals , continuously, its non-romantic character and foundation. This is, I believe, why it touches us so deeply as moderns living a disenchanted world. Seeking a certain type of erotic fusion with the world and the other is something she believes is unavailable to us. Sappho, instead, focuses seriously —–makes us focus seriously—- on the real nature of desire as we experience it as the embodied beings we are. This stance is powerfully revealed by Sappho in her vision of eros as a woman caught in the grasp of love. In this respect, perhaps one of the most anti-romantic poems ever written on the nature of erotic desire is the following:

”Eros once again limb-loosener whirls me
Sweetbitter, impossible to fight off, creature stealing up”
(40)
http://www.classicpersuasion.org/pw/sappho/sape05u.htm

We have already encountered Sappho’s simplicity of word. And, as it clearly stands out, she remains firm to her decision. My own line-art has been deeply influenced by her. But once again, this simplicity is truly deceptive. We desire an encounter, an encounter with Sappho’s simplicity. But we must not be blinded into believing that simplicity obscures complexity. Rather, it might just be that in simplicity lies the most complex of all affairs. For don’t we ourselves sense how simple it was to fall in love? And yet, don’t we acknowledge much later the complexity of what we did not see in the beginning?

How does Sappho express erotic desire in this famous poem? Sappho answers with great awareness. Against our romantic notions of eros —–the lovers who hold each other dreamily in a kind of oblivion of each (e.g. Tristan und Isolde)—- Sappho speaks as a mature human does. First, what strikes one immediately is that for her Eros is not at all chosen. Instead, she claims that eros is a creature which steals up; as if in ambush, as if unseen. Eros, a predator. The mystery of eros cannot be controlled from within for it is an unexpected appearance from the outside, a sort of reptilian assault which steals up towards us. Eros is an external force we cannot will, just as one cannot will either birth or death.

Secondly, instead of a gentle touch, she demands of us to recognize things as they are. Eros is a limb-loosener, not in the first instance a limb-generator. Eros whirls and twirls. It has hurricane forces to it. As it appears from hiding, no rectitude remains. No assured rigidity can face up to its overwhelming presence. And, as we saw above, it cares little for the powers of assured identity. In contrast, as if in a kind of protest, Sappho knows of her body’s loosing itself; for we do indeed tremble when in the presence of the lover (even if through a computer!) Each and every single limb comes apart as the force of the external comes rushing though my bodily self-image. Sappho demands that we recognize that eros touches our body first, our minds only much later. To live erotically is to pay attention to the body that we as finite human are and will always be until our death. This is why in another poem she writes:

”Without warning

As a whirlwind
swoops on an oak
Love shakes my heart”.
(44, Barnard)

Eros without warning, impossible to fight off. Against it, no defenses. Or so it seems. But this is not altogether right. Of course, we ALL know we actually DO defend ourselves quite well. Even some of our modern marriages may try to become a kind of defense. But Sappho speaks not to those who claim such abilities, she speaks to the artists and artistically-minded humans who have the courage not to defend themselves from eros in irony, denial or multiple deflections. However, some of the consequences of such an open stance —–of the stance which sees something beyond the boring repetition of oneself in front of oneself—– may turn out to be dire. This is why in another short poem Sappho warns:

”Pain penetrates

Me drop
by drop”
(61)

Freud also knows of the strange enticement behind these words, as he shows in this studies on the phenomenon of sadomasochism.

But that is not all. We are not even close to the poem yet. We have barely felt its loosening power. We have barely opened ourselves to Sappho’s bodily words. This is revealed by looking more closely at the poem, just as we desire to look more closely at our lover. We become like the photographers of Sappho’s poetic lines. We photograph her, that is to say, we write her in the light of our own erotic understanding.

Magnification brings out a special word in the poem. The poem uses the Greek word <b>glukupikron</b> which is erroneously translated in English as “bittersweet”. But the order of Greek is quite different; it is the same order of the word in Spanish. No wonder Spanish culture is close to the erotic; full of serenades, and dance and such! For the Greek word literally translates “sweetbitter”, or as in Spanish, “dulceamargo”. But what is Sappho pointing out? She is struggling to point out the temporal ordering of desire. The sight of the beloved in the first instance is adequately perceived as bringing forth a certain desirable sweetness. Rarely do we think of our first loves as lemons, rarely do we play erotic games with acid limes. Usually we use chocolates, and sweet oranges and the like. Later, of course, that MAY change.

But, less literally, what could this word be pointing to? Primarily to the fact that the assault that whirls us around, is, in the first instance, not so intimidating. The first encounter is actually pleasant. Of course, if our loves have gone badly, then we tend to deny this first impression later on. However that may be —–and it is a VERY frequent and difficult issue— Sappho speaks primarily to those who, in opening themselves to themselves, are honest to themselves as regards their natural erotic capacities towards the pleasant. But alas, it is also true that lovers can DO what in another poem Sappho says is itself a chosen denial:

”But their heart turned cold and they dropt their wings.” (16)

But then again, for Sappho that was not erotic love at all primarily because eros is not chosen. .

And even when previous loves have failed, we cannot but feel the sweetness of a new encounter. We feel what Sappho speaks of, namely, that in love we sense we are never more alive, readier for challenges, readier to regain our health, readier even for certain types of battles and decisions. The world is another, it has become unrecognizable.

But there is still much more to this little simple poem. According to the powerful work of Anne Carson, the crucial aspect of this poem is a tiny Greek word which, when translated, comes out to mean “once again”. The word in Greek is deute. The fact that Sappho seems to have invented it speaks volumes of her poetic abilities and endurance. But what could such a little word hold? The word “deute” relates us to the temporality of eros. It is grammatically composed of two elements: “de” which means ‘once’ thus signaling to the unequivocally non-repeatable present moment of the erotic encounter. “De” signals vibrantly the now of desire.

The second composite part of “deute” is the word “aute” which turns out to mean “again”. In contrast, it points to the temporal repetition of desires which have come and gone throughout our lives. “Now” we feel the presence of Eros, but Sappho in her maturity recalls that this newness was there before and was somehow “conveniently” forgotten. To this we shall return below. But that would not be fair; for if we remember well, Sappho’s erotic assault is NOT up to us! It just isn’t! So in this combined magical word “deute” the temporal nature of desire springs forth. In it, intertwined, we encounter the “now “ that we are facing in this instant as we look at her eyes (or messages if on the internet!), but this now is traversed “again” by the repetition of the many already felt assaults which have come previously in a similar fashion. To put it simply one could say, this poem reveals how this “now” is traversed by the “thens” of love. (Carson, 165) Pulled within the now, we actually feel in love. Pulled apart by the “thens”, we feel the craziness of the whole thing. And yet we let ourselves fall in the now. For Sappho, herein lies our humanity.

Much more could be said about the attempt to control the temporal nature of desire. To those interested in these issues Plato’s Phaedrus is a must read. Just recall King Midas. But here I would like to focus on what is meant by the now of erotic desire. So I will tell you a little story of mine. One of the main reasons I returned to Canada for a third time, was to see, feel and touch snow. To you this must seem incredible. But if you lived in the hot tropics you would never cease to be amazed by snow.

This whole absurd idea is perfectly captured by our amazing Gabriel Garcia Márquez in his deep and hilarious novel Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude). If ever you intend on living in a “developing” country, this is required reading. In his famous book, Gabo shares one of the amazing stories of José Arcadio Buendía. The book itself even begins with these incredible words which could barely be understood by an inhabitant of Northern latitudes:

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

Upon death, Aureliano remembers the sensation of ice. I, for my own part, remember the sensation of snow. Gabo tells us the whole story a little later in the novel. José Arcadio ——Aureliano’s father—– exclaims after seeing ice for the very first time in his life: “It is the largest diamond in the world.”(We smile thanks to Colombian humour.) Just to touch the ice, means José Arcadio must pay a big sum of money. But the sensation suddenly brought upon him, sheds light upon the memory his son Aureliano will carry forth until his death. Gabo tells us:

” and so he placed his hand over the ice, and held it there for several minutes, while his heart grew swollen with fear and jubilation in contact with the mystery.”

Ice, a mystery; snow a mystery. But what could this mystery be? What is the mystery of ice? What is the mystery of snow? It’s a mystery that is not totally decipherable. You must grab an ice cube and experience it for yourself. What you find yourself stunned by, is the feeling of holding on to the effacing. The more you press, the quicker it melts. The harder you wish to hold on, the quicker it ceases to be. You desire not to let go, and yet you know you must if you desire to feel this novel pleasure extended in time. You are torn between letting go —–thus freeing what you wish were only yours—- and holding on to what brings an indescribable and unknown pleasure, thus necessarily destroying it in the process.

We are reminded of some of our loves. This is why some have compared the sensation of holding ice in your hands to eros. One of those who knows of this mystery is Sophocles. In a poem he writes:

“This disease is an evil bound upon the day.
Here’s a comparison –not bad, I think:
when ice gleams in the open air,
children grab.
Ice-crystal in the hands is
at first a pleasure quite novel.
But there comes a point–
you can’t put the melting mass down,
you can’t keep holding it.
Desire is like that,
Pulling the lover to act and not to act,
again and again, pulling.”
(See Anne Carson.)

Holding ice in your hands, you become more aware of the temporal nature of desire. You come closer to knowing, and thus truly feeling, the always fleeting now of human desire. Understanding this becomes crucial in order to give life to healthier desires within our erotic relations. For we also wish to hold on to our loves in this troubling way. Much more could be said, but perhaps now you better understand why I wanted to return to Canada and see, and touch, and melt snow in my bare hands. And perhaps now you better understand when Sappho exclaims:

“I don’t know what I should do: two states of min in me …
I’m in love! I ‘m not in love
I’m crazy! I’m not crazy!

4. The metaphoric distance of our erotic lacks.

Simplicity, loss of identity, bittersweetness, the “now” and “thens” of eros; all mysteriously opened in the poetic words of Sappho. But even more stunningly, Sappho reveals the nature of our erotic longing in an unparalleled graphic poem. We ask: what precisely in us makes us desire what we have seen may lead to a deep destabilizing force in our lives? Sappho reveals that desire is moved negatively by the presence of a self-sustaining lack. In another very short poem Sappho adds to our previous considerations:

As a sweet apple turns red on a high branch
high on the highest branch and the applepickers
forgot—-
well, no they didn’t forget —were not able to reach.”

If desire moves us so deeply, it is perhaps because in part it reaches out to something we ourselves have not made part of our self-identity. We are not whole, but tend to desire some kind of wholeness; even desire an original wholeness previous to birth. Coming together sexually is perhaps the closest we may come to bridging this “physical” gap. This is brilliantly related by Aristophanes the comedian in the Symposium, perhaps another journal will provide the connections.

For what we do not lack seems not to move us in the least. If in fact we were completely self-sufficient, it seems our movements would cease; we would become something like strange bodiless gods. But we are far from such self-sufficiency, says Sappho. Science fiction does dream of bodiless existences, but even if it were so, Sappho would protest that such a life would not be a human life in the least. This sense of lack is then a powerful jump-starter, but a dangerous one as well. It does pull us out of ourselves, but it may do so primarily seeking its own fulfillment. Having my needs met by you —believing that this is possible— I fail to confront my needs which continue to go unnoticed within me. For perhaps in seeking not to face our lacks, we push them forth into others, specially and most dramatically into our lovers. We place in them the burden of our desire for original wholeness.

But how is all this connected to the poem at hand? Let us see. As we elevate our linguistic sight, we behold a very complete sweet apple turning on a high branch hanging above us. Focusing our eyes upon this apple we discover several things. First, and foremost, that we no longer see our surroundings. The tree which bears this apple has been lost to us, the other apples are no longer there to be seen. Is this not very much like the times we have become smitten by eros in our lives? Don’t we radically reduce our sight from a healthy wide-angled view to the most telescopic of lenses? Photographically speaking, we move from 10mm to about 600mm! Besides, we know Sappho has chosen an apple tree for obvious reasons. If indeed most of us westerners relate the apple to another myth, the myth of Adam and Eve, it is clear that for Sappho and the Greek lyrical poets in general, an apple is the metaphoric fruit of the beloved. Rather than the beginning of a sinful existence as in the Christian myth, it stands as the perplexing presence of an erotic longing which might make us fall as well, but in an altogether different sense. And even in our daily life we still correlate sweet apples with erotic desire; dA is full of such enticing photographs. Some photographs even portray this with no apple whatsoever!

Now, what was puzzling from the start, becomes even more so. If we were initially told that the sweet apple was on a high branch, we now are corrected by Sappho who stretches our sight almost beyond the visible. She tells us now that even the 600mm is not enough, we WILL need lens-extenders! Or so it seems. For this sweet self-sufficient, self-enclosed and silent apple is truly situated “high in the highest branch”! (For an amazing analysis of the Greek grammar which carries out this telescoping see Ann Carson). But how could we have been so mistaken! I mean, how could our eyes have not seen this coming? Perhaps they did not want to see, perhaps they saw what they wanted before them. And just like the ice we held, but somehow did not want to hold on to for it meant its dissolution, likewise we now look but do not want to look too hard for we might no longer have anything to look at!

Suddenly we are introduced to the true subjects of the poem: the apple-pickers who “specialize” in picking the beloveds of the world. Apple-pickers, men and women who seek out the fulfillment of their desires in another whose beauty primarily seems to appear as a sweetness which hides bitter possibilities. But what does Sappho herself tell us about them? First off, that they are many. Many, it seems, look up to the apple which awaits picking, many will have to “deck it out” for it. The whole thing is quite Darwinian! Secondly, that instead of picking —–which is what they are good at—- they instead are lost in the activity of seeing. As if charmed by the apple’s reddish presence, they have ceased any action. But this is not altogether true. Sappho tells us that what they have done is rather specific, they have decided to “forget”. We are told that in picking they have forgotten something altogether important. But what is it that they have forgotten? Their first action, was to pick, then they just stare, and now suspiciously they forget! And forgetting desire, how difficult a task that is according to Sappho! We continue reading and, fortunately, the poetess herself reveals it “all” to us. She clarifies the illusions behind the mysterious forgetting of the beloved.

Suddenly, as if pulling us back from the distance to the reality of the present, Sappho tells us that in reality the apple-pickers did not actually forget at all:

“well, no they didn’t forget —were not able to reach”.

What a stunning revelation of a conveniently comic decision! The sweet apple on the highest branch remains untouched by any of them; and yet, instead of recognizing their incapacity, they make a strategic move. They pretend to have not even seen it at all! For if they are indeed good apple-pickers, it would be to their detriment to have some apples actually escape into the freedom of their own erotic nature. So, just as we convince ourselves that the “now” of eros can be sidestepped, so these apple pickers convince themselves that they never saw anything! Faced with the desire to face their own lacks, they instead become forgetful of themselves so as to be able to desire this very same apple the morning after as they move around the orchard unchanged and truly unloved.

By thus moving us using this kind of photographic focusing of erotic desire, Sappho teaches us that the erotic lack we have as sexual beings pulls us outside ourselves into a distant reality. This erotic reality which hangs before us eludes us; we tend to deny it in disbelief as we approach it and learn, to our astonishment, that it continuously evades us. Lacking the apple we seek it, but if we actually came to possess it, the drive to jumpstart the search would be gone! And therefore, during the sleep of the night, these apple-pickers will convince themselves of events that did not occur. They will awaken the next morning to try to pick the sweet apple on the high branch, or rather, the sweet apple high on the highest branch. And they will forget once more, and they will begin anew the morning after. The apple, it seems, will never be reached, for in reaching it, we would cease to be humans altogether.

Perhaps Sappho allows us, through her poetry, to liberate our lacks into the honesty of their essential nature. In reading Sappho’s simple lines there might come a day in which we will not only not forget, but actually love the other as other for we will have come to know ourselves as lacking. And perhaps it is in a very similar way that we as artists relate ourselves to our own work. For we all know of the desire to create and yet somehow feel that once the work is created, once the apple has become real, the search for it is gone. And day by day we convince ourselves that there is a new apple we have not picked. It lies high in a high branch in a tree we can no longer see, and in this way we strive to give poetic word to those foundational lacks which conform us from the very start.

(A complete understanding of this dynamic would have to include several discussions of Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus, including their intimate discussions of wings and metaphors. Besides, a deeper understanding of the apple itself and its troubling intrinsic nature —–of this self-sufficient being which is the erotic beloved, which in modernity finds parallels in the idea of the “Lolita”—- in a sense requires readings such as Yukio Mishima’s stunning The Damask Drum, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, Alba Lucia Angel’s Misia Señora and Gabriel Garcia Márquez latest book: Memoria de mis putas tristes, among many others.)

5. Erotic triangulation

Sometimes one should simply let a great poem speak for itself instead of pretending to understand it:

”He seems to me equal to gods that man
who opposite you
sits and listens close
to your sweet speaking

and lovely laughing — oh it
puts the heart in my chest on wings
for when I look at you, a moment, then no speaking
is left in me

no: tongue breaks, and thin
fire is racing under skin
and in eyes no sight and drumming
fills ears

and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, greener than grass
I am and dead —or almost
I seem to me.”
(31)

(Do let me know if you have found the puzzle of triangulation within its mysterious lines. To be able to see it involves, among other things, learning to read erotically: http://amelo14.deviantart.com/journal/7266768/ )

6. Conclusion

Sappho’s poetry is perhaps the single most important poetic work on the nature of eros in a pre-Christian era. Not giving in to romanticism, she faces the mystery of erotic desire head on. Thoughtfully perceptive to desire’s perplexing dilemmas, she encourages us with her courage to feel the nakedness of those simple poetic lines in which she remains open as perhaps the most erotic lover of all. Her poems provide a certain mature self-sufficiency which nonetheless remains open to the living eroticism of those with whom we come into contact as we move through our lives. Or in other words, through her decisions the poem is liberated to its inmost energetic possibility which in turn may radiate into the possibility of loving oneself –—and perhaps another—–in the intimacy of the created and creating word.

However, me must conclude by pointing to at least two great challenges to this very powerful view of human desire. One is the view of eros as defended by Socrates and later on Aristotle guided by a reconsideration of desire and the connection between true friendship, another kind of self-sufficiency, and a happiness beyond the mere sense of a personal feeling. (See my journals on Socrates : a) http://amelo14.deviantart.com/journal/7640910/ and b) http://amelo14.deviantart.com/journal/7696872/ ) The second view is the view upheld by a believer; for instance the one defended by Christians and their notion of “agape” (love of God) as expressed profoundly in Augustine’s <b>Confessions</b>.

We artists might feel secure in our own islands, but Sappho’s poetry at least teaches that openness alone guarantees the possibility of avoiding self-delusion. It is this very same poetic honesty which may allow us to return to the beginning of erotic love:

“I don’t know what I should do: two states of mind in me … (36)
I’m in love! I‘m not in love!
I’m crazy! I’m not crazy!

I have been there. It does take much courage. It is rare.

(First published on the web on Feb 9, 2006 with accompanying art: http://www.amelo14.deviantart.com/journal/7838058/)

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(Note: FOR AN IDENTICAL PRESENTATION WHICH INCLUDES SOME PHOTOS, PLEASE SEE THE FOLLOWING: link )

On trees, deep ecology and poetry

1. Introduction

Most of us, if not all of us, have a particular fondness for and connection to living things. And since each of us is unique, we have greater connections to some living beings over others. This connection is very difficult to articulate. For example, some people have a fondness for dogs; still others for tarantulas. Dali was fond of flies, though most of us aren’t. I myself have always had a particular fondness for trees. I cannot tell you why exactly; I can only say that my adolescence was close to them. I was lucky, I got to know MANY diverse trees. But many other living beings were also close to me, and yet my fondness for trees stands out. This journal tries to articulate this connection.

But, fortunately, I am not the only one. Here at dA many people are fond of trees and flowers. One need only check out the photography category Nature to find thousands upon thousands of photographs being uploaded constantly. And I ask myself, what are all these deviants trying to say? Of course, not all such deviations are artistic, but they DO show that artists and non-artists have a strong and deep connection with the living.

But for some, it is poetry which is THE privileged art that opens this connection with the living more primordially than any other. This journal is also about this connection with poetry, with a poem that tells about our connection to trees. Once, one such poem came to me. It is a poem about trees. I am sorry, I must correct myself. It is a poem about A very unique tree. These are the opening lines of this poem entitled A Refuge of Nocturnal Birds:

“High on a cliff there’s a twisted pine;
intently it listens into the abyss
with its trunk curved down like a crossbow. ”

(Salvatore Quasimodo; Nobel Prize, 1959.)

Poetry uses such deceptively simple words! I mean, I am sure most of us know each and every single word just read. So much so, that we think we have understood these few lines. But then I wonder, why would Quasimodo receive the NOBEL prize if things are as simple as they appear? Surely there is a mystery brewing here. Perhaps our complex modern lives have made us a bit hasty. We know too much and rarely pause.

Instead, I propose we listen “intently” again to the poem as this peculiar pine listens intently to the abyss. But this is not easy; for I am not sure if our capacity to listen is at its best. How could we listen being surrounded, as we are, by so much noise pollution? How could we listen if we are always talking? Have we forgotten to listen in our hectic age?

But much more importantly, and these are the VERY difficult questions which guide this journal: if indeed we CAN listen to the world of living things —–if we can listen to their Being— what would it mean to be able to listen TO them? I mean something not too complex. I mean, in part, this; the latest I heard, trees just DO NOT speak. Or, more to the point, how exactly can a poem speak for trees in an age in which trees are becoming extinct because of our technological encroachment? How can we humans –specially artists and philosophers— let trees speak? Or, can/should we just shed our technological understanding of the world, an understanding in which trees have lost their symbolic enchantment? How, indeed, to let them speak without Imposing our anthropocentric voice unto them?

This journal attempts to be a very incomplete preparation towards new types of encounters. Mainly, it is shared so that together we can listen more clearly to our fondness for trees and other living beings. But like the twisted pine in Quasimodo’s poem, before getting to the poem itself, we must —unfortunately— make some preparatory twists.

2. A puzzle

The previous questions carry with them a very perplexing puzzle; it is a puzzle which is of particular interest to us modern Westerners for we alone have brought about the demise of a mythological understanding of the universe and the beings which inhabit it. To this we shall return; but for now, how to express better this puzzle which I feel so intensely?

In one of the most beautiful Platonic dialogues –—the Phaedrus, which deals with erotic discourse— Socrates says something altogether puzzling to us moderns. Phaedrus teases Socrates by telling him that he rarely leaves the city of Athens for the countryside. In the countryside Socrates seems to be totally lost. Socrates seems to not be much of a hiker, as we modern city dwellers in our polluted cities have become. To this teasing, Socrates responds:

Forgive me, best of men. For I am a lover of learning (philomathes). Now then, the country places and the trees are not willing to teach me anything, but the human beings in town are. But you ….” (230d; Translated by James H. Nichols; Ithaca, Cornell University, 1998) ” (on the web a lesser translation, see:
[link]

(In this regard see the striking lack of reference by Xenophon’s Memorabilia (Ithaca, Cornell University, 1994) to Socrates’ studies in natural philosophy, a silence which points to the puzzling relation, to say the least, between “natural philosophy” and “political philosophy”.)

Socrates is of the city, rather than of the countryside. What could Socrates be getting at? But, is this true? Don’t we have anything to learn from trees? Isn’t Socrates absolutely wrong here? We might think about this possibility: Socrates just simply did not foresee an age in which the very existence of the Earth would come into play because of the powers we have harnessed as humans caught in our technological grids. Of course, Socrates knew VERY WELL the Greeks could destroy themselves. But for US humans to destroy the Earth, that, I think, was a situation Socrates could not have foreseen.

And yet, might not there be some truth to Socrates’ important point? To see what might be behind his point just consider a very simple question once again: when was the last time you actually spoke to a tree, and it actually answered back? By the same token, recall the opening lines of the poem above. The tree in Quasimodo‘s poem is NOT the tree which I see through my window. I bet you, the tree outside does not actually listen to anything, for it just does not have ears! So after all, it seems, Socrates has a point. Trees cannot teach us much. But, is this true?

It is this ambivalent questioning which moves me to try to listen more carefully to what trees might say to us humans in an age in which trees are continuously fallen and seen as standing reserve ready to be cut, rather than as the wilderness of which we are an integral part. This is why, in contrast to Socrates’ words, I must let you listen to Tolkien’s words. In particular, we listen with deep gratitude to how Pippin tried to describe his encounter with the Ents, the oldest inhabitants of Tolkien’s symbolically rich world:

“One felt as if there was an enormous well behind them, filled up with ages of memory and long, slow, steady thinking, but their surface was sparkling with the present; like sun shimmering on the outer leagues of a vast tree, or on the ripples of a very deep lake. I don’t know but it felt as if something that grew in the ground –asleep, you might say, or just feeling itself as something between root-tip and leaf-tip, between deep earth and sky had suddenly waked up, and was considering you with the same slow care that it had given to its own inside affairs for endless years.” (BOOK II; ‘Treebeard’, pg. 77)

How could we not learn from such creatures? How could we not wish to become like them? I mean ; “enormous wells with ages of memory of slow thought and a sparkling present as surface”, who does not seek something like this before death arrives? We moderns in particular; how could we not learn from beings whose motto, Tolkien tells us, is “do not be hasty”?

It is the pull of these two views, summed up in the contrasting words of Socrates and Tolkien, that move me to write this journal. I am extremely fond of trees, but I do not want to simply project my fears upon them. If they do indeed have nothing to teach me, I prefer to know.

3. Two understandings of trees; secular biology and sacred wisdom.

To better understand this puzzle, which I myself find difficult to grasp and even to share with you, one can bring to memory certain stories. Think of the role trees play in two very important events in human history. One concerns the origins of Buddhism; the other, the origins of our modern scientific approach.

It is said that Siddhartha, at the age of 29, was forever transformed when he came upon the sight of four very special humans: an old crippled man, a sick man, a decaying corpse, and finally a wandering holy man. The sight of suffering and the search for a meaning to such suffering, became the meaning of his life. Years later, it is said that while sitting in meditation under a bodhi tree Siddhartha reached enlightenment and became a Buddha.

“But, what does all this have to do with trees?,” impatiently you ask. Very much. The Bodhi tree plays a central role in the story; Siddhartha could just as well have been meditating in the shower when he reached Nirvana. Or under an orange tree. But that is not how the story goes. Instead, there is something in trees, specially THIS tree, which brings us closer to certain fundamental and sacred truths about ourselves and the universe. No wonder in Buddhism the bodhi tree is considered to be THE tree of wisdom; it is both sacred and its name literally means “supreme knowledge”. ([link] ) Scientific nomenclature itself has been so struck by this that it calls the tree, using its binomial categorization, ficus religiosa! [link]

(If you come from a Christian background, as many of us do in the West, you might ponder about our very own initial myth, that of the tree of life and the tree of knowledge: “And out of the ground made the LORD God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Genesis 2; 9; For a consideration see Thomas Pangle Political Philosophy and the God of Abraham[link] )

But we modern westerns also have another, very different story about trees. It is the story of Sir Isaac Newton’s tree. ( [link] ) It is said that the apple that hit Newton on the head allowed him to think anew our relation to the universe and its fundamental laws. The privileged realm above in the heavens could now be understood by the very same laws which were applicable to the natural world right here in our Earth. Of course, this might not have happened exactly as the story goes, but the myth has greatly become part of our understanding. And I ask myself, can you sense how different roles the trees play in each of these two very important stories? What Newton discovers is not wisdom in the company of a wise tree, but his universal mathematical understanding over and above any tree. For ALL trees are covered by the laws of gravity. In contrast, in Buddhism, NOT ALL trees are wise trees. Newton and Siddhartha sought the comforting shadow of trees for two VERY different reasons. [link] .

What this story reveals then, if I am right, is that we can no longer safely move without reaching into BOTH stories. Trees, in the West particularly, have definitely lost the strong symbolic powers which once attached to them and linked them directly to the Gods. It would seem that this is simply a loss. But I do not think so. The story of yet another tree may help us to understand the necessity of both discourses. It is the story of the neem tree.

On the one hand, ayurvedic medicine has known for centuries of its multileveled benefits. They are so many that it is actually called the “village pharmacy”. So a pre-scientific understanding has already gained much. But the biological-scientific understanding seems to provide the possibility for this tree ‘s playing a central role in the defense of complex ecosystems themselves:

“Of primary interest to research scientists is its activity as an insecticide. Many of the tree’s secondary metabolites have biological activity, but azadirachtin is considered to be of the most ecological importance. It acts by breaking the insect’s lifecycle. Research has increased in the past few years as the desire for safe pest control methods increases and it becomes apparent that this tree will be able to play a role in integrated pest management systems.“
[link]

It seems, then, that both discourses have MUCH to gain from their interaction. And yet, at the same time, we are overly conscious of the destruction of trees and rainforests in our world. We no longer have the confidence we once had that the solution to our technologically generated dilemmas can be cured by the use of technology itself. We recognize that something has gone wrong with this scientific-instrumental view of nature. We fear, rightly, that it does not have the tools to pull itself out of the dangers it generates.

And the tension of our initial puzzle, which I hope has progressively become clearer, returns. On the one hand it is WE humans who are disrupting the planet and therefore humbly must take into consideration the symbolic relevance of other living beings. But on the other hand, we somehow sense that WE alone have consciousness of the world and know what it would actually mean to SAVE or DESTROY this living world of ours. Perhaps if we try to understand more closely the dangers of instrumental reason we can get clearer still on this difficult puzzle. Here, the aid of some philosophers is much required.

4. Instrumental reason and deep ecology

To see how deep we are into this scientific model of understanding nature, we can do an exercise in memory. Biology courses provide a great example. For, it seems, we moderns take it for granted that the way we classify nature and seek to understand it, is THE primary way of access to the world. A standard biological definition of a tree reads: “A tree can be defined as a large, perennial, woody plant. Though there is no set definition regarding minimum size, the term generally applies to plants at least 6 m (20 ft) high at maturity and, more importantly, having secondary branches supported on a single main stem or trunk.” [link]

That we do not feel any uneasiness at this view of trees, should indeed make us a bit uneasy. This understanding of trees is quite unique and problematic. Don’t you see something odd here? First of all, it is indeed odd to even try to define trees. Of course, biology requires it. But, is this mode of access the PRIMARY access to trees we must adopt? What this model emphasizes is not without problems. We classify, categorize, measure and analyze. Don’t you feel you are objectively being told what a tree is, as if the tree were being observed from above, rather than the tree being a participant in a complex ecosystem? And such definitions usually continue by telling us what we westerners seem to love, they proceed to speak of superlatives. We are immediately told about the tallest, the widest, the oldest, constantly seeking in reality what we can quantify analytically. However, as for the height of trees, it is interesting that we are told: “the heights of the tallest trees in the world have been the subject of considerable dispute and much (often wild) exaggeration.”. Trees serve our purposes for recognition by others; we want to have the tallest tree near US, so we can stand out much taller than we actually are.

But how to quantify what for others is the sacredness of certain trees? The Bodhi tree does not seem to stand so much physically apart from all other trees as it does spiritually. To have been the one tree under which marvelous events occurred, what more could a tree wish for? A more comprehensive, a deeper, understanding of trees is required. Trees must be allowed a voice beyond their classification. Poetry, as we shall see, is such a possibility.

Many philosophers have likewise pointed out how strange this view of reason is; primarily because it begins its processing by severing our access to the world of living things. For it to work accurately and cleanly, it must begin by separating us form the world. This is a non-starter for many of us. This strangeness can be revealed as well in our modern maps. This type of reason is known in philosophical circles as “instrumental reason”: It has a complex history of its own connected to the rise of the new science defended by Bacon and Descartes. Among other things, when one speaks of instrumental rationality the idea is that we consider the means without thinking reflexively about the ends to which this means might lead us. Production must keep increasing even if there will in the end be nothing to produce with. We seem caught in this self-destructive dynamic. Underpinning this view of the world is the preponderance of a cost-benefit analysis and in general a utilitarian outlook to ourselves, others and nature. Taylor sums up the issue quite well:

“Instrumental reason has grown along with a disengaged model of the human subject, which has a great hold on our imagination. It offers an ideal picture of human thinking that has disengaged from its messy embedding in our bodily constitution, our dialogical situation, our emotions and our traditional forms of life in order to be pure, self-verifying rationality. This is one of the most prestigious forms of reason in our culture.“ (“The Ethics of Authenticity”, a MUST read for ANY artist, pg. 102)

Disengaging ourselves from trees, easily we topple them. We might say to ourselves: “They cannot engage in dialogue; so much the worse for them.”

To this position the Romantics, among many, revolted. They pointed out the dangers of this separation between humans and their natural world. Art became a way to bridge the disconnected parts which conformed a mechanical view of the universe. To make a very long story short, what has come out of such critiques is what is known as a stance called “Deep ecology”. This position stems from a reconsideration of what language reveals about ourselves and the world we inhabit. Under it, living things place a demand on us humans which moves us beyond our anthropocentrism into a view in which we “let things be”. In an article entitled “Heidegger, Buddhism and deep ecology”, Michael Zimmerman writes:

“Buddhism, Heidegger and Naess argue that puncturing the illusion of permanent selfhood would alleviate the infliction of such suffering by freeing one from the illusory quest for total control. Being liberated from the illusion of egocentrism also frees one from the spontaneous compassion towards other beings human and non-human alike. One ´lets things be´ not for any external goal, but instead simply from a profound sense of identification with all things” (pg 263-264)

It is not by chance that it is Buddhism which leads the way here. Siddhartha knew much about trees, or so it seems. Now, this perspective in itself is not without problems, but it stands as a powerful critique of the anthropocentric view which sees humans as dominators of nature, rather than as one of the highest expressive possibilities of the natural.

Deep ecology reconsiders seriously the role language plays in our relation to the world. Instead of using language to classify the world, words become the way to disclose things and allow them a voice beyond our own. Having language center exclusively on humans likewise makes it impossible to hear subtler languages which open humans to realities beyond their own anthropocentric paradigm. Our initial puzzle seems to have found a possible response. Although it is WE humans who have language, it is by changing the way we understand language, that we can hear the voice of the living things to which we belong. Something like this is what Taylor is trying to get at with the use of the term “epiphany”:
“what I want to capture with this term is just the notion of a work of art as the locus of a manifestation which brings us into the presence of something which is otherwise inaccessible, and which is of the highest moral or spiritual significance; a manifestation, moreover, which also defines or completes something, even as it reveals” (SotS pg 419)

Art in particular provides the human possibility in which epiphany can be realized. Perhaps now we are more prepared to listen to Quasimodo’s poem about a very unique tree.

5. A poem about a unique tree: “A Refuge of Nocturnal Birds”

Do forgive so many twists and turns. Now, finally, to Quasimodo’s complete poem. A Refuge of Nocturnal Birds, reads:

“High on a cliff there’s a twisted pine;
intently it listens into the abyss
with its trunk curved down like a crossbow.

A refuge of nocturnal birds,
in the deepest hours of midnight it resounds
with the swift fluttering of wings.

Even my heart has a nest
suspended into the darkness, and a voice;
it, too, lies awake listening at night.”

Let’s listen to it a stanza at a time. We must remain open to see what poetry can reveal and transform as it reveals. It reveals complexities, even if made up of the simplest of words. As few other arts can, it reaches origins.
.
First Stanza

“High on a cliff there’s a twisted pine;
intently it listens into the abyss
with its trunk curved down like a crossbow.”

The poem opens by distancing us from what appears is its main character. High on a cliff, far away, one sees a tree. But this tree is not just any tree. It could have been a maple, or a eucalyptus. But no. It is a pine. “Why a pine?,” you might ask. Only later shall we see. We must be patient and not skip the lines of the poem. We must not be hasty as Tolkien’s trees remind us. But then we puzzle a bit. This pine is no ordinary pine; it is instead, twisted. But tell me: have you ever seen a twisted pine? Aren’t pines the straightest of trees? Why does Quasimodo do this?

Perhaps that this special pine is twisted tells us something. It is a pine which has undergone a transformation. Its nature is no longer what other trees of its species take for granted. It has mutated. It stands out. And we imagine all other pines blushing somewhat at the sight of such abnormality. In contrast, Siddhartha would not have mocked this tree. .

Having described the tree and its location, we are now told what it actually DOES. Trees aren’t really the most active of creatures. But this tree is special. It is a listening tree. It listens with its twisted trunk. How does it listen? This tree listen INTENTLY. It is an intense twisted tree. What does it listen to? It listens to the abyss. It listen to the depths; to the depths of time and the darkness of origins.

And through the magic of words Quasimodo suddenly transports us from the distance on the high cliff afar, to a certain closeness to this tree. We are moved , with a few words, to focus on the shape of its trunk. The tree trunk provides the solidity of a tree’s very existence. Just remember the biological definition of trees. It is the trunk which holds the branches, not the other way around. Surely a tree without a trunk is like a person without a spinal chord. And this tree’s trunk has a special form; that of a crossbow. And we puzzle at Quasimodo’s choice of words. A crossbow for what? This pine intently listening is both a pine and a crossbow. Now we suddenly understand why it MUST be a pine. For a pine has the form of an arrow. This pine listening intently projects itself ready for flight as an arrow thrown from its very own being towards itself. But how can this be so? Have you ever seen a tree move? How can it move while remaining in its place? Trees seem to have a certain magic to them.

Second Stanza

“A refuge of nocturnal birds,
in the deepest hours of midnight it resounds
with the swift fluttering of wings.’

Quasimodo gives us pause to rethink what has happened. And while we do so, we return only to suffer a move towards the inside. This fantastic tree, shunned by other trees in their upright existence —–which does not mean this tree is not itself upright, only that it is so in a very different way— has a peculiar function. It is the tree chosen by the surrounding birds. It is a refuge for life. Bent, it can carry the birds which upright trees might not. These winged friends flock to it at night, when the light of day is gone and great perils arise. Waiting in time, probably remembering its own rings, suddenly this tree resounds in the darkest of moments. And we look carefully at Quasimodo’s choices upon the many which opened before him while writing. This tree “resounds”. Why not simply say that this tree “sounds”? Why emphasize that it RE-sounds. Perhaps because this tree has sounded before, and will sound again at midnight as long at it lives and there are humans to tell the story. Other trees seem soundless in comparison.

It resounds at a specific time; at the time in which much of night has gone by, and still much of night is still to come. One needs strength to survive until midnight and great hope to survive afterwards. For dusk is long past, and dawn is far away. How can we be sure dawn will in fact arrive? This tree has no songs of its own, though its rings have the memory of countless singing inhabitants it has outlasted. This unique tree resounds with the fluttering of wings. Swiftly the birds ——who take refuge in it as a home—– give it motion and musicality. Instead of simply lying asleep within the tree, they keep it close company. It is as if the birds —-in gratitude towards this special tree— want to take the crossbow which this twisted tree is, directly into flight. Unable to fly, this tree is now prepared, because of the presence of fluttering birds, to fly. For we are truly grateful to refuges; particularly to those refuges which took us in the midnight hours of our lives. Specially those refuges who gave us shelter based on the DIFFICULT maturity of true generosity. Grateful as Siddhartha must have been before he became another; a much better other.

Third Stanza

“Even my heart has a nest
suspended into the darkness, and a voice;
it, too, lies awake listening at night.”

And we catch our breath for we are heading towards the end. We began far way, only to enter into the very branches which hold these birds within. But now, suddenly, WE appear to ourselves for the very first time. The twisted tree OUT there in the cliff, the birds OUT there in the twisted tree, becomes the tree IN which WE live. We are not the tree, but we are close. Have you ever been close to a tree? Quasimodo tells us that even our hearts have a nest here. But we KNOW we are not birds If you have doubts, try to fly into the abyss. And yet, a bit like birds, we create our nests from the twigs and small branches of our lives. Furthermore, for Quasimodo the nest is not primarily for our brains, or legs; though it is ALSO nest for them. It is primarily a refuge for our hearts. This twisted tree is a refuge for artists who value our emotional human existence as a privileged way of accessing the world which surrounds us in constant immediacy.

Quasimodo is grateful as well; even HIS heart has a nest. This is why he shares this poem with us. He does not simply want a nest for himself, but rather a nest for US. But this nest, we are told, lies suspended. It lacks a firm grounding which guarantees total safety. Total and firm grounding is not a possibility for us moderns, as it was possible for earlier times. Our access to nature as moderns cannot have the grounding we once knew in earlier mythologies which allowed for a direct connection between trees and gods. We know of science and its understanding. This is why our nest lies suspended in the darkness. .A strong and compassionate refuge is required precisely in such times. It is in darkness that the generosity of shelter becomes a gift. Suspended in the darkness and close to the abyss, Quasimodo’s poem allows us to reconsider ourselves and our relation to the world of trees.

And then the MOST puzzling aspect of the poem appears as a lightning bolt. Quasimodo briefly adds “and a voice”. Not the tree’s voice. Not the birds’ voices. Not Quasimodo’s voice, for he could just as well have said “my” voice. And yet it is A voice. This voice does not have the presumptions of possession, but rather discloses, in the darkness, the possibility itself of a language in which things are freed unto themselves for us to hear them. And what does it say? Nothing; for our human voice may perhaps have said too much. Instead, it is open to the difficult activity of listening beyond our own speech. This voice is open to the disclosure of nature in the very words of the poem we are reading together.

In contrast to so many voices, this voice lies speechless; it awaits the time to speak, to open itself in renewed speech. It listens, as once the twisted tree we knew at the beginning of the poem did. Awakened, it has allowed this tree access to language. Our consciousness –liberated from pure instrumentality – becomes itself a crossbow which projects the tree as an arrow into the abyss. This voice, the voice of the poem itself, resounds ever again as we feel the pull to return to the beginning, to its origin. Perhaps in it, awake at night, we might feel the echoes of a faint refuge for us humans, specially of us artists. Instrumentality has seen the possibility of a depth beyond its dangerous limitations.

6. Conclusion

This has been, once again, a long journey. I am grateful if you have been a refuge to my weak words. Perhaps now we are more prepared to listen for calls which we might otherwise miss. Perhaps at least this call must be heard; the tree of life must be heard before we continue climbing up the tree of knowledge. For it seems we know much, but live well little. Perhaps together we are now better prepared to listen to Quasimodo’s deceptively simple words. Let’s listen intently:

A Refuge of Nocturnal Birds

“High on a cliff there’s a twisted pine;
intently it listens into the abyss
with its trunk curved down like a crossbow.

A refuge of nocturnal birds,
in the deepest hours of midnight it resounds
with the swift fluttering of wings.

Even my heart has a nest
suspended into the darkness, and a voice;
it, too, lies awake listening at night.”

(RIFUGIO D’UCCELLI NOTTURNI

In alto c’è un pino distorto;
sta intento ed ascolta l’abisso
col fusto piegato a balestra.

Rifugio d’uccelli notturni,
nell’ora più alta risuona
d’un battere d’ali veloce.

Ha pure un suo nido il mio cuore
Sospeso nel buio, una voce;
sta pure in ascolto, la notte
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