Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Eric Mottram, 'Peace Projects 4'

Note. this is about a poem by Eric Mottram which is discussed briefly in Council of Heresy. It is an expansion of that discussion; it wasn't interesting enough to go in Heresy. But it's moderately interesting.

Peace Projects 4
Recital: after Corbin's Avicenna

inside the gaze
events suprasensible
inward hidden esoteric they shut out demons
or bliss the paradisal
joy in Old English         each bliss
in each mode of being
a situation cosmos a magnitude to be situated
inside meditations
turn through presence under tissue

secretive motives lie lie revealed revealed adventure
loved arise into view
by lucky mistake into an unexpected
carried into each Image of his World     [mundus imaginalis]

we carry
to pass beyond cycles prisoner circles
broken child before the circling zoo animals he cried for
and never returned [panther bit]
that padding locked prowl that fur against bars
hot meat breath choked his presence
he turns from his eyes now

reached only after situations breaks the Stranger's exodus
Orient towards his native country
invitations known as theory of knowledge
passage pilgrim who discovered at his first step
needs no Light goal
goal projected protection
journey manacled to an Angel shadow-catcher against
horizon transgression
le monde divin est contagieux et sa contagion est dangereuse

stages to conquer fetters [more Panther bit]
the lion had gnawed his rear left knee to the marrow
the child before his gaze asked why as he knew exile

before the Recital of Exile Suhravardi read
the young prince sheds his robe of light
his parents wove in love for him [=The Pearl]
he arrives in exile a Stranger
recognised as he tried to be unnoticed
fed the forgetting food
in return he assumes that robe
believes he has grown to its fit

before the Recital of the Occidental Exile
powerless in fatigue
forced food of forgetfulness and disgust
he breaks from the stinking well
makes for the Emerald Rock
Hermes always replies Perfect Nature
Phōs in his Night of light
works towards an approach to the pole
to be instructed

put your lamp under a glass

enter under ground

dig in darkness to become Phosphoros

Light Bearer
Active Intelligence

under the Angel
Knowledge Revelations
friend defender in tenderness
to the man in western exile

then the book tells us

I saw my stature had grown to sit the way it was made [The Pearl again]
and in its regal movements it spread over me

simplicity in bi-unity
a robe of light inexpressible
in categories of language

Poimandres speaks here
daimon paredros protector
lamb over his shoulders
head haloed by seven planets
sun and moon at his sides
syzygies of light

the choice made descend into material
struggling body against counter-powers
to find homo verus in each of us
archon king judge witness man in man the friends
Phōs multiple at the Midnight Sun
homo integer Active Intelligence each a difference
no longer prisoner in exile
repeating parents firing their weapons
eating their nervous foods
breaking their young in to their inheritance

“not quite can you call him away from that sinister company”
- Rilke makes a statement -
"who began him"
how can you break from "your heart full of refuge"
into "his night-space"

"this is the marvellous bending of the human body"
Empedocles speaks here
"sometimes through Love
all the limbs unite
all the limbs that have a right to a body
at the peak of flowering life

bathed in heat in thick light
the rain everywhere icy and black
running through each other
making everything that is

all this
so you can test it

he calls away the breath of those
who think back on home
in his hand a golden stick  [Hermes]
that soothes the eye
if he wants it to

wakes others
from death's sleep"

"Pass through the third gate
receive the proof of things unseen

between I and Me a Friend

appears third person
to overcome to live
after the fall
overcome the Ape of Thoth
Ape of Zarathustra revenge

resentment staked into its dead earth


This poem was published in Angel Exhaust in 1986 and is discussed in the 'Two leaders' chapter of my book 'Council of Heresy'. It also appears as Four in a whole volume of 'Peace Projects'.


What is this poem about? It is about abasement and transcendence, using symbols drawn from Near Eastern religion to write the tale in. There are reasons for viewing this poem as a moment of bursting out into emotional and physical fulfilment, a summa of lyric liberation. Unfortunately, this is hard to recognise beneath Mottram's peculiar way of assembling verses. The first six lines may be an exordium and are a sort of description of the terms bliss and paradise. It is reasonable to see these as the theme of the poem, and in fact nothing in the poem is incompatible with this theory. The phrase which relates bliss to its Old English etymology is academic and distantiating. Already the idea that this is a personal poem about an ego experiencing bliss and paradise and spontaneity is fading into dimness.

The subtitle refers to the Islamic philosopher Avicenna (980-1037), or rather to a book about Avicenna (originally, one volume of commentary and one of text) by Henry Corbin. Let us say at once that 'recital' is a kind of pun, since the original says 'recit', which is simply a 'story'. Eric has found the English word recital attracted to this group of words, more striking than 'story'. What Corbin says about another recit, by Sohravardi this time, is that it is a re-enactment of a 3rd C poem (variously interpreted as Gnostic, Manichaean, Daisanite, and Christian) known as 'The Pearl’ (etc.) which appears in the Syriac Acts of Thomas. This source poem, as discussed in Council of Heresy, provides about 8 lines of 'Peace Project 4'. The utilisation of 'The Pearl' may be a justification of the reuse of various texts by Mottram in his poem. The whole of Corbin’s commentary and translation are available on the Internet, in English. The 'recital' may be a pun on the word 'cite', for 'quote': Mottram's text is a serial re-quoting or recitation.

Let’s quote part of one of the recits which Corbin gives us:

Brothers of Truth! Strip yourselves of your skins as the snake casts
his. Walk like the ant, the sound of whose steps none hears. Be like the
scorpion that ever bears its weapon at the end of its tail, for it is from
behind that the demon seeks to surprise men. Take poison, that you
may remain alive. Love death, that you may still live. Be ever in
flight; choose no settled nest, for it is in the nest that all birds are captured.
If you have no wings, steal wings, get them by sleight, if need
be, for the best of illuminators is what has the strength to rise in flight.
Be like the ostrich that swallows burning stones. Be like the vultures
that gulp down the hardest bones. Be like the salamander that lets itself
be wrapped in flame, at ease and confident. Be like the bats that
never come out by day; yes, the bat is the best of birds.

This is something deep, beautiful, transparent and mysterious at the same time. I am not able to judge or explicate it, but it’s obvious at a glance that this is a classic of the world. Mottram starts with this and winds up with his poem.

The bit about 'suprasensible' is a technical term in the kind of Islamic mysticism which Corbin is discussing, as a realm which is not subject to validation by the senses but is not fantasy and pre-exists the human. 'Suprasensible' thus means 'not available to the physical senses (but available to the mind)'. As this weighty term appears in line 2 of the poem, it may be at the core of the poem.

The line about "to pass beyond cycles prisoner circles" represents the initial state of the narrator, from which he is rescued by a great awakening. The references to the human body can be taken as sexual awakening, although clearly they do not have that meaning in the religious source material. The description of the caged panther can be seen as a conventional symbol for sexuality waiting to be unleashed - something not unlike Elvis' 'Panther man'. We can read the passage

"sometimes through Love
all the limbs unite
all the limbs that have a right to a body
at the peak of flowering life
bathed in heat in thick light
the rain everywhere icy and black
running each other
making everything that is"

- in secular fashion as a moving tribute to the powers of love. (It is a quote from a poem by Empedocles and is a description of the human sexual act in the original.) It goes on for three pages developing imagery, copied from the several different strata which Corbin calls up from within the late, culturally deep, text of Avicenna, without deviating from this basic dramaturgy of being awoken from ignorance and captivity.

The poem is organised around several simple symbolic oppositions, such as:
Stranger - home
nature - restriction
light - matter
sleep -wakefulness
sensation - emptiness
exile - paradise.

There is a passage from a Rilke poem about a caged panther ("In the Jardin des Plantes", I think). The cat is caged and the main poem is about the soul (of the narrator) being trapped. The cat prowls and prowls around and in the Asian symbolism the soul is trapped in circles.

The poem refers to the man in western exile. This is a phrase from Sohravardi as used by Corbin. The word ‘exile’ appears five times. The original reference may be to the captivity in Egypt. In any case, the west symbolises the captive state and the material world and the east symbolises the world of light and the liberation of the soul. Corbin: "The qualification Oriental comes to the philosopher as a transcendent qualification, in the measure to which he is oriented toward the Orient in the true sense. This transcendent signification of the Orient, the transmutation of geographical meaning into the symbol of a higher reality, has illustrious precedents. The example is already set in the literature of Gnosticism, and above all in the admirable 'Hymn of the Soul' in the Acts of Thomas (whose entire dramaturgy is imitated in Suhrawardi's Recital of Occidental Exile)." This hymn is the same one as the one called 'The Pearl' (and, earlier, 'The Hymn of the Robe of Glory') by other writers. Raine also writes about the theme of exile. How have we got from Avicenna to Sohravardi? This is a breach of continuity. However, Corbin says that S. was very much based on the stories of Avicenna which are the subject of 'Visionary recital'.

between I and Me a Friend: compare Corbin's reference to "This soteriology, the encounter with the transcendent Self, which is at once the same and not the same as "myself”". The friend is an angel, a figure in the Islamic text of Avicenna in which Corbin detects something much older, a fravarti or angel from Zoroastrian mythology. "At the moment when the soul discovers itself to be a stranger and alone in a world formerly familiar, a personal figure appears on its horizon, a figure that announces itself to the soul personally because it symbolizes with the soul's most intimate depths. In other words, the soul discovers itself to be the earthly counterpart of another being with which it forms a totality that is dual in structure. The two elements of this dualitude may be called the ego and the Self [.]" We can readily imagine this third party as being a lover, someone who is wonderfully close to the soul of the narrator and also changes him into something other than what he was.

The 'shepherd' is a figure from an early Christian text, the Hermas or Shepherd, which Corbin describes.

"this is the marvellous bending of the human body" - how does this material about the body fit in with the ‘suprasensible’ theme? Surely the body is available to the senses.

How much of this poem is by Mottram and how much is quotes pasted together? It seems to me that almost the whole poem is a series of quoted scraps, snipped up and reconnected, from four sources: Corbin on Avicenna; the Syriac Pearl poem which Corbin refers to but does not print; Empedocles; and two Rilke poems. The ‘resources’ (much the same as a list of sources) in the book form of Peace Projects are not very full at all but do add Bataille. I tried to read the Bataille text in question but couldn't find its relevance. I don't like Bataille very much. I am also wondering where the quote from Empedocles (the pre-Socratic philosopher) comes from as he is not in the ‘resources‘. The book version of 'Peace Projects' quotes a whole page from Corbin’s book on Avicenna. Another resource given is another Corbin book, The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism, which I have not read. 'Phos' means 'light'. The second Rilke poem is the third Duino Elegy ("sinister company" etc.)

The accumulation method resembles Mottram's annotated reading lists. The poem is much like a series of excerpts from classic texts strung along a theme which connects them. The effect reached is of degrading each personal experience but giving access to theoretical consideration of a concept, turned into abstract pattern by the parallel of different moments. We have to ask whether the fragments make any sense unless you go away and read the source texts. Mottram is not a natural communicator. The texts on bliss he uses have authority, because they are recognised and important. But bliss does not mean much unless we can experience it for ourselves. It is a first person experience and the experience is the authority for writing about the experience. This is the basis of lyric poetry.

Mottram achieves a depersonalised effect by an array of means including the lack of personal pronouns; the lack of tenses relating events to the now-time of a human subject; the lack of conjunctions; the lack of a clear situation with a human subject to partake of the experiences. The prosody is very strange and is as far as possible from a speech rhythm. This prosodic organisation weakens the sense of an I behind the experience. The normal devices of emphasis which would let us engage with an apparent human speaker are disabled, and we cannot detect a movement of sensibility animating the line breaks and so on. Everything is organised so as to make the poem abstract and depersonalised. It is exile rather than experience. Yet joy, bliss, etc. can only be experienced by a subject and are not properly part of the physical world at all. It is incongruous to use a method suited to effects of criticism and alienation to construct a poem which is, as we discover, about spontaneity and bliss. What happens to purely personal feelings in a depersonalised context is that they evaporate. We have to ask whether the poetic means which Mottram relies on are of any help in writing a good poem.

This weakening of the ego figure bears out what we discussed in the Primer (chapter of ‘Council of Heresy‘) about the tendency to be clear about Who and strong on What. The ego feeling is central to a human being. By weakening it and ejecting us into a cold world, you allow the intellect to make a bid for power but abolish the bridge to feelings like bliss and identification which have no meaning outside the sensitive bubble-skin of the ego.

The original poem ‘The Pearl’ has an insistent I figure and reduces everything to first-person experience. It has presence and intactness and these offer a home for the abstract theological ideas. These qualities of intactness and integration (two cognate words) are also a basic rule for Kathleen Raine’s poems, and this is why Raine is a better poet than Mottram. Reitzenstein talks about the sources of ‘wonder tales’ as ‘autoptikoi’, i.e. ones who saw something for themselves. This is a technical term of the Hellenistic period. The weakness of Eric’s poem is that it is not things he had seen himself.

You set out thinking that it's all about Avicenna as in the title. But it's also about Corbin's commentary on Avicenna. (And even a commentary by Corbin on a commentary on Avicenna.) Then some of it doesn't come from there at all but from a book by Sohravardi on whom Corbin wrote other books. And then whole passages are quoted from 'The Pearl', the text which Corbin thinks Sohravardi, a thousand years later, is re-enacting. Mottram never sticks with anything. It's hard to get a clear line of sight. For me the poem is full of rips and the substance of the poem flows out through those rips. He's jittery.

The bit about 'manacled to an angel' is how you get to the ninth sphere, somewhere you can't reach by physical journey. This shows how obscure the poem is. How can you connect the 'manacled' bit to the stuff about a journey to the 'suprasensible' a page earlier on?

'he calls away the breath of those/ who think back on home': this is a function of Hermes, who was equated by mythographers with the Egyptian Thoth. This syncretism is basic to the Corpus Hermeticum. 'Ape of Thoth' may be an error. Crowley uses this phrase and it has unpleasant implications in his writing. It referred to his mistress Leah Hirsig. But Thoth, the Egyptian god of writing, was depicted as a baboon. Possibly emend to "the Ape Thoth". That whole complex of Crowleyan ideas would alter the poem a great deal and for me it doesn't belong. There may be room to write a poem about Leah Hirsig, but this isn't it. The 'ape of Zarathustra' is a character in Nietzsche's Also sprach Zarathustra, someone who distorts the message.

A marginal note. Corbin spelt his first name “Henry”, as quite a few French people do. I don’t know why this archaic form is in use. In the eleventh century or so, this French name was given to several Norman kings of England, and this spelling stuck in England. Mottram mis-spells it throughout, as quite a few English people do. I have corrected other spelling errors in foreign words.

Raine, Collected Poems
Corbin on web
Eric Mottram, Peace Projects and Brief Novels (book, 1989)
Andrew Duncan, The Council of Heresy (out March 2009)



Have got hold of a book by Steven M Wasserstrom called 'Religion after religion: Gershom Scholem, Mircea Eliade and Henry Corbin at Eranos'. I discovered this some time after I'd finished writing on 'Peace Projects 4' and on Kathleen Raine. It is a work of wonderful profundity and confirms to me that I will never know enough about theology to write about theology. Setting aside his great knowledge of twentieth century heretical (or at least radically creative) para-theologians, Wasserstrom knows enough about Judaism and Islam to write a book comparing the two. I don't feel erudite enough even to comment on Wasserstrom's momentous work, but I will add two quotes from it.

On Corbin, page 147: "Antimodernism is a second feature of this thought [.] Corbin consistently and uniformly excoriated the characteristic developments of intellectual modernity, especially historicism, sociology, and secularisation. As he put it near the end of his life, 'The norm of our world can assume all manner of names: sociology, dialectical or non-dialectical materialism, positivism, historicism, psychoanalysis, and so forth'. Elsewhere in the same essay he exclaims, 'Sociologists and philosophers of history are [...] the docile followers of Pharaoh.' [...] For Henry Corbin, modernity is catastrophe." If we recall that Raine made Corbin the tacit Leading Spirit of her magazine Temenos, this passage is highly revealing. (Pharaoh appears here as the king of materialism and un-knowing.)

Corbin (it says) rejected the Church as an official structure, and said 'Shi'ite Islam poses par excellence the theological problem of post-Christian history of religions to Christian theology.' That is (my gloss!), Shi'ism by abandoning any kind of Church structure and any kind of government has already solved the problems of a believer in the 20th century. The answer is that everything is to be immediate, integral, now-time spiritual intuition, and nothing is to be logical or bureaucratic.

Wasserstrom usefully explains a special word, tautegorical. This was coined by Friedrich Schelling. It stems from the familiar word 'allegorical', as allos means 'other' and tautos means 'the same'. Allegory is a symbolic statement which refers to something outside itself. Tautegory is a symbolic statement which is complete in itself, where the point is the experience of understanding it, a spiritual intuition so integral that it is like a place: when you leave it you cannot be at that place. You can have memories of it but you are not at that place.

Wasserstrom draws attention to the importance of a line of 19th C German philosophers to the cultural position accepted by Corbin and Eliade (at least). They are unfashionable because they drew patronage from the Holy Alliance, the attempt of the anti-democratic monarchies, after their military victory over Napoleon, to push democracy and the Enlightenment right off the face of Europe. The idealistic young were, in 1820 or 1840, supposed to be so lost in theosophy that they had no time to think about social affairs or to interrogate the power structures. Franz von Baader saw history in esoteric terms but was in tune with the monopoly power organs and was (presumably) mainly read by the employees of the State administrations and by priests. Yet these conservative, authoritarian mystics were a step in the Counter-Enlightenment, part of a current which was to be very important in the 20th C. Their work is important even if you disagree with it. They were too late to be 'generation 1' of the Counter-Enlightenment because that was afloat even before 1789.

W describes Corbin’s adaptation of Heidegger as a ‘Lutheran Orientalist gnosticism’. Corbin was a 'Lutheran' in the specific sense that he had deep affinities with unorthodox Lutheran sectarians: Boehme, Oetinger, also Hamann. This was the European sound which he sought the mirror image of in Islamic thought. The connection of this line, esoteric as it was, with English poetry saturated in Blake, was natural, a skill acquired before it was needed. Raine was England's greatest Blake scholar of the mid-century. (Ernst Benz lectured on these German mystics at the Eranos meetings.)

If we accept that poetry contains what it is about, then the critic has to write about what it is about. To write about the esoteric Shi’ism (and the 20th C Gnostic heresy), which through Corbin enters both Raine and Mottram, surpasses my knowledge.
An aside, that poets imitating Blake without having more than the faintest of ideas of what Blake was really about were just jumping in a river. They had no chance of success. I did write about some texts translated from Syriac, but the context caused problems.

Wasserstrom: ‘It is not an accident that a certain sort of post-Christianity, so-called New Age religion, emerged during the Cold War. Religious intellectuals like the Historians of Religions spearheaded a notion of religion that seemed to transcend denominational boundaries even as it presumed some kind of transcendent unity to world religions. The geopolitical antagonism of the Cold War, seemingly so constitutive of the age, stimulated at the same time what seemed like a planetary ecumenicism. The Eranos kind of public gnosis, popularized by Jung, Campbell, and Eliade, could espouse its identity, seriatim, with alchemy, shamanism, yoga, templarism. Such a secularized esotericism, of course, is now familiar in its subsequent popularized forms as (tellingly) New Age religion.’ (p.142)

Further "In addition to the support of the Iranian regime, it is also important to note Bollingen support for Corbin. The Bollingen Foundation was founded and funded by oil magnate Paul Mellon, which also served as patron of the Eranos meetings, for which it provided subsidization. Mellon’s Gulf Oil controlled vast interests in Iran. Corbin’s self-described ’spiritual’ Iran served the Shah’s ‘imperial’ Iran, a Cold War ally who stabilised extraction of petroleum for a billionaire American, who in turn, from his profits, subsidized that ‘spiritual’ self-image." p.152
Corbin’s excessively close relationship with the Royal couple in Iran prefigures Raine’s relationship with Prince Charles, as patron of the Temenos Academy. Raine’s besotted love affair with the grandson of a Duke (who was unable to take pleasure in female company) also belongs in this context and is hardly separate from her rejection of the French Revolution as the end of the rule of the European aristocracy. The guiding image was of the court genius, court theosophist.

Corbin died a few weeks before an uprising ended the rule of his royal patrons. It is ironic, given that he revered the Shi’ites for their total lack of interest in politics, which encouraged dictatorships in countries of mainly Shi’a population, that the thirty years since that time (written 2010) have been affected, more than anything else, by the political awakening of the Shi’a and their new willingness to take part in the ‘exoteric power’ of governments.

No comments:

Post a Comment